HC Deb 28 April 1989 vol 151 cc1198-220

'(1) Section 1(4) of the Hearing Aid Council Act 1968 (in this Act referred to as "the principal Act") shall be omitted and the following shall be substituted: The Secretary of State may require the Council to submit for his written approval any standard or code drawn up under this section or any variation of any such standard or code which he may have previously approved provided that he shall first consult the Council and consider any representations made". (2) In section 1(5) of that Act for the words "Board of Trade" there shall be substituted "Secretary of State". (3) In section 1(6) of that Act for the words "may investigate" there shall be substituted "shall investigate".…—[Mr. Hunter.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.36 am
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

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

The new clause stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). At the start, may I say how much I support the Bill. It is a much-needed measure. Like many other hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on selecting this theme. When I cast my mind back over the nearly six years in which it has been my privilege to be a Member, I doubt whether three or four months have passed without a constituent getting in touch with me about the hearing aid industry or about the activities—or lack of them—of the Hearing Aid Council. It is generally agreed that the time is long overdue to turn our attention to the Hearing Aid Council. I support the Bill fully and the amendments to it have one purpose only—to make a good Bill even better.

In preparing for the debate, my attention was brought, courtesy of the House of Commons Library, to the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and its current paper "Hearing Aids: the Case for Change", which was published in October 1988. One need quote only one paragraph to illustrate the need for the Bill and the new clause. It gives this startling information: the Disciplinary Committee of the Council has met just 11 times since 1968 and not at all since 1985 … just 7 dispensers have been struck off the Register, the last in 1976. I dare say that matters have changed since October, but that is a startling admission of the council's ineffectiveness and inadequacies.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

For the sake of accuracy, will my hon. Friend confirm that the Hearing Aid Council can institute disciplinary proceedings only if it receives complaints? No doubt my hon. Friend will let the House know how any complaints were received during the period that he mentioned; according to my information it was relatively few.

Mr. Hunter

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right that relatively few complaints have been received, and that underlines the weakness of the whole system: the Hearing Aid Council's code of practice does not afford the protection that consumers—and sometimes the industry—need.

I was agreeably surprised to discover that the new clause had been selected for debate. It approximates very closely to the new clause 1 that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn moved on 5 April in Committee and I shall deploy substantially the same arguments as he did. It is unusual for us to have a second opportunity—by means of a second new clause—to debate a matter that is undoubtedly of great importance, but more can, and should, be said in support of the general theme that the Secretary of State should be given more powers.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

May I reply to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter)? I understand that the disciplinary committee of the Hearing Aid Council has met just five times since 1976 and struck off one dispenser in 12 years. In the 21 years of its existence, it has met only 12 times and struck off only seven dispensers. That contrasts sharply with the 300 complaints received by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr.Jones) since the introduction of the Bill was announced. There is therefore a case for saying that there is a background of complaints that have not been adequately dealt with by the present machinery of the council.

Mr. Hunter

My hon. Friend puts more clearly the point that I tried to make in response to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr.Porter)—that the system has not been working. That problem is being addressed in the Bill.

As arguments in favour of the new clause are essentially the same as those advanced in an earlier debate, it is important and beneficial to consider what was said in Committee by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn and by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs. In speaking to his new clause, the hon. Member for Ynys Môn started with a significant point. Displaying his natural courtesy, he thanked the Minister and his officials for the assistance that he had received in preparing the Bill and, no doubt, arguments in favour of some of the clauses. It seems to me that, in so doing, the hon. Gentleman laid himself open to the charge that I level against him now without any malice, that he did not press his arguments home strongly enough. I believe that those arguments are stronger than those deployed by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State in reply.

9.45 am

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn continued by explaining that the Hearing Aid Council was set up in 1968, and that section 1 of the Hearing Aid Council Act required the council to draw up standards of competence and codes of trade practice for the industry. The significant point is that the 1968 Act gave the Secretary of State only limited powers, as was pointed out several times in Committee. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn said: Even if there were an overwhelming case for change, the Secretary of State would be powerless to intervene if the council refused to act."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 April 1989, c. 3.] His new clause and this new clause represent attempts to redress that balance and correct that imperfection.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn then drew attention to the grave anxiety that had been expressed over the years about the workings of the Hearing Aid Council—the very subject to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) referred. It was concluded in Committee that the case for change was overwhelming.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn referred to some startling instances of high-pressure sales techniques, by which vulnerable people had been persuaded to invest in hearing aid equipment costing up to £1,000. I have not encountered such appalling abuses of sales techniques, but I remember clearly trying to help one or two of my constituents who had been pressurised into spending several hundreds of pounds on such equipment.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn stressed the failure of the Hearing Aid Council and pointed out that, under the existing regime, nothing could be done to change the code of practice. He anticipated the Minister's reply to his argument—the same argument that he will perhaps now deploy—that a change in the composition of the council would be sufficient to provide the safeguards that are now missing. The Minister duly replied in that vein in Committee. He acknowledged that there was a fundamental difference between the promoter of the Bill and the Department about the role of the Secretary of State.

I was not present, but I can imagine my hon. Friend the Minister injecting a note of humour into his voice when he pointed out the irony that, in this case, Opposition Members were arguing for an intensification and extension of the powers of the Secretary of State, whereas they usually argue for the reverse. My hon. Friend described himself as "in principle a non-interventionist". The basis of his argument was that there was no need for the Secretary of State to have additional powers and that all would be made well by changing the composition of the council.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Under the new clause, the Secretary of State of the day could decide whether to intervene. The key difference between this new clause and the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) in Committee is that the present one gives the Secretary of State discretionary power to intervene, whereas the new clause moved in Committee placed a compulsion upon him to intervene if things went wrong. If we had a non-interventionist Secretary of State, therefore, there would be no intervention, but if we had an interventionist Secretary of State, no doubt he would use his powers.

Mr. Hunter

My hon. Friend has made a point that I intended to make—no doubt more clearly than I could have done. The new clause is a compromise between the ideas advanced by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn in his new clause and the Minister's non-interventionist attitude; it does not go as far as the first, but is not as reactionary as the second. The Under-Secretary of State's argument is flawed. I say that with great respect. He lays himself open to three charges, which I hope he will answer.

The first is his faith in the belief that, should the council be composed differently, all would be made well. That assumption has not yet been convincingly demonstrated. Secondly, in Committee the Minister failed to perceive the true nature of the Hearing Aid Council, even revised as he would accept it. Thirdly, he does not realise that he is supporting the creation of a council which still will not have acceptable and adequate powers. I shall examine those three points in detail.

The first charge is that the Minister put too much faith in the assumption that, by changing the composition of the council, all would be well. In Standing Committee he referred to the change in the composition as the key provision of the Bill."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 April 1989, c. 14.] He regarded it as a panacea that would correct all the faults and failings in existing custom.

If we look carefully at what the Minister said, we find not an argument but a simple assertion of a point of view. He asserted that, when changed, the council would solve the problem. He gave no reason why he came to that conclusion. He gave almost precisely the opposite. As reported in columns 15 and 16 of Hansard, the Minister gave two reasons why he believed the composition of the council should be changed. Neither is that the Bill will give the council sufficient power and thus make the Secretary of State's intervention unnecessary.

First, he stressed that the existing composition of the council puts an unreasonable burden on the chairman. No member of the Standing Committee quarrelled with that. Secondly, he argued that the increase to the 4:4:4 composition of the council would avoid confrontation. Those are the only two reasons that my hon. Friend gave for changing the composition. He did not show why changing the composition would remove the need for, or how it could be used as an argument against, giving extra powers to the Secretary of State.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Eric Forth)

I am flattered that my hon. Friend should refer at such length and with such knowledge to my modest interventions in Committee. For the benefit of the House, will he distinguish the arguments about the composition of the council and its powers? He will concede that the Bill would alter both. My argument put the two together. I said that the composition was important but that measures in other parts of the Bill with regard to the council's powers were of equal importance.

Mr. Hunter

I have studied the Official Report carefully. I must concede that, if that is the Minister's argument, I do not immediately find it reflected in the columns of Hansard. My hon. Friend must be right, and I must be wrong.

The point that I am struggling to make is that there is nothing in the columns of Hansard or in the Minister's argument to show that the change in the composition of the council excludes the need to increase the Secretary of State's power. The Minister's argument is not the only one open to that charge. Seven other hon. Members spoke in the debate in Committee. I refer to my hon. Friends the Members for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) and for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), and to the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), and the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) as well as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn.

Not one made the point or accepted the argument that a change in composition would remove the need for the Secretary of State to have additional powers. Although, as the Minister suggests, there may be strong arguments against giving the Secretary of State extra powers, they were not demonstrated in Committee.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

After reading the Standing Committee report, I am still confused about what the Under-Secretary of State meant when he said that the Secretary of State should be left with existing reserve powers. It was a short speech by the Minister. I hope that he will be able to elucidate his point further. I have read his speech in Committee carefully. I do not think that he explained to the Committee— I hope that he will explain it to the House in rather more detail—what he means by reserve powers. Perhaps he will compare such reserve powers in the Bill with the other reserve powers that the Secretary of State may exercise in other responsibilities.

Mr. Hunter

I welcome that intervention. The Minister has a lot to explain. His arguments in Standing Commit tee were far from acceptable even to his hon. Friends.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

I sense that, as my hon. Friend proceeds, he is shooting a large number of foxes that would otherwise be run by people such as myself if I had the chance. He is making many important points. What the Under-Secretary of State really would like is a self-regulatory system, which I confess I should like, but we do not have a self-regulatory system in this hearing aid matter: we have an existing framework. The purpose of the new clause, which I support, is to improve that framework. We cannot go back. We cannot try to get the self-regulatory system that I suspect my hon. Friend the Minister would like.

Mr. Hunter

That is a valid observation. I suspect that, when the hon. Member for Ynys Môn decided to embark on this course of action, he had to make a fundamental decision. Was he to seek to reform the existing system, improve what we have, or go back to square one and start again with an entirely different structure? Obviously, he chose the course of effectively reforming the existing system. I agree with him: the right approach was to seek to improve the position, and this Bill does that, with one or two exceptions. But some points must be tightened yet further.

Another charge which one can level against the Minister's argument in Committee is that he failed to appreciate the true nature of the Hearing Aid Council, even as freshly constituted. The Minister said: As a principled non-interventionist, I do not believe that Secretaries of State should have more powers than are absolutely necessary".—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 April 1989; c. 4.] Those words remind me of an article that appeared in The Guardian two or three years ago. I was greatly flattered to be linked with the Minister when The Guardian described us as Right-wing libertarians. I do not like that description of myself, but I recall the Minister accepting it with some pleasure. Right-wing libertarian or not, he said that he was a principled non-interventionist.

Surely a principled non-interventionist would not approve what is effectively a quango. We have a Government-appointed committee. Its composition is deliberately changed to avoid confrontation. The Minister hopes that it will conduct its affairs even with a minimum of votes. In Committee, he said that he hoped that its decision would not have to be taken by vote. I do not believe that that is a satisfactory state of affairs. I cannot reconcile with the Minister's right-wing libertarianism his support for such a quango. I believe that, on those grounds, we should look much more carefully at giving the Secretary of State exceptional powers to intervene.

My third reason for believing that we can quarrel with the argument put forward by the Minister is the expression: The Secretary of State should be left with the existing reserve powers, but they should not be enhanced."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 April 1989; c. 4.] I shall refer to that when I deal with the new clause in more detail.

10 am

I propound the thesis that the Bill as it stands is inadequate in that the Secretary of State has only reactive rather than proactive powers. If we wish to repair the past damage—as, indeed, we do—surely we must do the job properly and ensure that the Secretary of State has power to act in a proactive rather than a reactive way.

The new clause gives the Secretary of State proactive powers to draw up standards of competence and codes of practice for the hearing industry. At present, as many hon. Members will realise, he can only modify the standards or codes put to him by the council. The purpose of new clause I is the same essentially as that put to the Government by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn in Committee. It was rejected there, on the ground that changing the composition of the council to reflect more the interest of hearing aid users would ensure that change could be achieved.

I argue that the council is effectively a quango and its members are appointed by the Secretary of State. While it exists, it must protect effectively the interests of hearing aid users. The new clause would ensure that the Secretary of State could act in the event of a revised standard or code being needed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside said in his intervention, the power is discretionary. It does not compel the Secretary of State to act. It provides that he must first consult the council and consider any representations. It does not, therefore, overburden the Secretary of State with executive power. The third part of the new clause would also compel the council to investigate complaints received from the public. At present, the council is under no obligation to do so.

Although I support the Bill very much, I believe that it could be made a better one by the addition of the new clause. I have no hesitation in commending it to hon. Members.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) for the Bill. I was surprised, however, by the number of words used by the hon. Gentleman to describe the new clause, valuable though it is. I never dreamed that he had such a capacity for eloquence, such tremendous descriptive powers or such a great depth of knowledge. I congratulate him on his fine display. I noticed the hon. Member looking at his watch as he spoke. I could not make up my mind whether he was looking at it because he felt that he had been speaking too long or because he felt that he was not filling the time that he had allotted to himself.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke said that the sponsor of the Bill did not stress his points strongly enough in Committee. I have never won the ballot, although I have worked closely with hon. Members who have. I have never won a raffle in my life. If the hon. Member for Basingstoke is ever lucky enough to win the ballot, he will know that one has to be diplomatic and try to work with the Government. The relationship between the sponsor and the Minister has been a good one. I believe that the sponsor was right to indulge in that give and take. He has produced an excellent Bill. If we start interfering, being dogmatic and assertive, we get nowhere. I reject that criticism of the sponsor. I reject, too, the criticisms of the Minister. It is a fine thing when a Member on the Labour Benches defends a Conservative Minister, but I shall like it to go on record that the Minister has done a good job on this Bill.

I did not think that the composition of the council come within the ambit of the new clause. I am not sure whether it would be right to deal with that on Report or on Third Reading. However, I shall comment on it briefly. I believe that the composition of 4:4:4 is crucial. I do not believe that the Minister said that all would be well if that was the position, but he said that it was a significant and important contribution to the Bill. I agree with him. The former composition whereby the hearing aid industry dominated the council was patently absurd, and the 4:4:4 composition is precisely the balance that we need.

The proposed new clause weakens the oversight of the Secretary of State and I do not believe that that will be a good thing. The relationship between the Department of Trade and Industry and the council is tenuous and it should not be weakened further. I think that, as drafted, the clause removes the current power of the Department to approve the modification of standards or codes.

I like the part of the new clause that says that the council "shall" rather than "may" investigate complaints. I believe that the intent of the clause is good. However, if the Minister is not happy with the new clause—I am prepared to be guided by him—sI hope that it will be withdrawn.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the Bill, especially on the new clause, and to follow the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), whose contribution on the subject has been so significant. If hon. Members want to appreciate the problems of those with impaired hearing, I refer them to what I believe was one of the most memorable of speeches. I did not hear it but I have read it in detail. It was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) on 24 March. It was moving to read. It must have been even more moving for those who had the privilege of listening to it. We in the House have a particular interest in hearing because of the poor standard of the microphones, which were complained about only yesterday. I say that as someone who is suffering from a temporary hearing deficiency which may get worse. I hope that I will not be in a position to benefit under the Bill.

Mr. Colvin

I know that my hon. Friend represents part of a county where field sports predominate. As a shooting man, does my hon. Friend take the precaution of wearing ear plugs? A number of people are beginning to suffer from defective hearing because they overlook that important safeguard.

Mr. Baker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. Of course, I wear ear plugs. I would recommend that many more people, especially those who listen to overloud music in discotheques, do the same, because that clearly is a cause of much damage about which we know far too little.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) has made many of the points that I would have wished to mention. There is a conflict between, on the one hand, having a form of quango or hearing aid council that has powers that will be effective and is composed in the right way, and, on the other, expecting the industry to be a self-regulatory body. I referred to that in an earlier intervention, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say something about it.

I have always preferred the self-regulatory approach. I have worked as a solicitor and that profession operates a closed shop. It is governed on a self-regulatory basis, which has been successful up to a point, although I do not believe that it is the most successful example of self-regulation—perhaps the takeover panel is such an example. I believe that self-regulation is more appropriate to professions where those who transgress the rules can be prevented from practising than to those who make and dispense hearing aids. We must deal with the Hearing Aid Council as it is, and in that spirit I support the new clause.

The composition of the council is relevant to the new clause. The 12-member council—four representatives of the trade, four consumers and four medical or technical experts—will create for the first time a genuinely balanced council with the prospect of consumers having a meaningful voice.

The reason for the new clause is that it is possible that the newly composed Hearing Aid Council will omit something or fail to pick up some complaint. In those circumstances, it is possible that the Secretary of State will want to require the council to submit a code. That is provided for by the new clause.

With those reservations, I believe that the new clause would improve the Bill, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Colvin

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), and I thank him for his support for the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) and myself.

I should first state my credentials for participating in this debate. I was instrumental in pressing the Government for comments on the paper "Hearing Aids: the Case for Change", which was published by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf earlier this year. On 16 March I asked a parliamentary question about those proposals. Interestingly enough, the question was tabled to the Secretary of State for Health, not to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. When the Under-Secretary of State for Health replied, he said that the proposals made by the RNID were being carefully considered. It is obvious that another Department is closely involved with this matter, and this is why I probed the Department of Health rather than the DTI for a response.

Another reason for my participating in the debate is that on a number of occasions I have been approached by my constituents, particularly Mr. Ronald Scurlock of West Wellow, who has had considerable difficulty in getting hearing aids. He has faced delays of up to a year in receiving hearing aids. The Health Service should reconsider the service it provides to those who are hard of hearing.

I was also prompted to participate in this debate by a parliamentary question that I tabled on 15 March to the DTI concerning the Plessey company in my constituency. I was surprised to notice that the question immediately before mine had been tabled by the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr.Ashley), who is a leading authority on matters affecting the deaf. His question was: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what consideration he is giving to the reform of the Hearing Aid Council. I had no idea that that was a matter for the DTI and therefore I was interested in the Under-Secretary of State's response.

The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South pointed out that there were flaws in the membership of the Hearing Aid Council, which he believed favoured the industry. He suggested that the way in which it supervised the industry was absurd and that it should be changed in such a way that consumers rather than the industry which it regulated dominated the council. He also asked the Minister whether he should not take reserve powers: to amend any code of practice or standard put forward by that council so that he can keep a watch on future developments?"—[Official Report, 15 March 1989; Vol. 149, c. 405.] That was a logical request and it is provided for by this new clause.

When the Under-Secretary replied to the right hon. Gentleman's question—we shall hear what he has to say later today—he skated around the right hon. Gentleman's proposals. He said that he had faith in changing the composition of the council which would ensure that it was effective and representative. I have my doubts.

10.15 am

Another reason for my participating this morning is that I have been approached by Mr. J. Hague, who heads the Hythe hard of hearing club. I received a letter in this week's post from him drawing my attention to the fact that the Bill was coming back on Report today and he said: The Bill is so important to hearing-impaired people that I earnestly ask you to stay in the House on that day. Well, here I am.

My other reason for participating today is that I have a profoundly deaf godson. Evan Gibbs is 12 years old—his birthday was yesterday. His mother had German measles and that is why he was born profoundly deaf. He used to wear a phonic ear, which meant that he could tune into his teacher. He has now graduated to what is known as the post-aural aid, which is a great success. His condition is annually reviewed by Wiltshire county council, which is the local education authority. What is so important, particularly for children at school, is that there is always close liaison between the local education authority and the district health authority, which operates the ear, nose and throat unit that carries out such investigations.

Although we are extremely critical of the industry, I have found no evidence to suggest that there is any high-pressure selling of these extremely sophisticated appliances.

Mr. Barry Porter

indicated assent.

Mr. Colvin

I note that my hon. Friend is nodding in agreement. I know that he has an interest in this matter. Incidentally, when I spoke in the House about the licence trade during the passage of other legislation, I always made the point of declaring my pecuniary interest in that matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) intervened earlier. Perhaps he would like to clarify that matter.

Mr. Porter

I intend to speak in this debate later if I catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye. At the beginning of that speech I would declare my interest, that from time to time I advise the Hearing Aid Association—a trade association of private dispensers. I make it clear that that interest is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests, but I would have said that during my speech.

Mr. Colvin

I am obliged to my hon. Friend, and I am glad that we have cleared up that point. May I say—I am sure that this will be echoed by other hon. Members—that that association is extremely lucky to have the services of my hon. Friend.

The new clause was ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on his selection of subject and the way in which he has steered the Bill's passage so far. One is fortunate in this place if one's Bill obtains a Second Reading on the nod. It is a great credit to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn that his Bill took only one Committee sitting and that he gained the support of Committee members and of Members from all parties. Such progress demonstrates a remarkable degree of unanimity across the party divides which too often separate us.

I should also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), whose debate on hearing aids on 23 March was extremely interesting to read. It has made us much more authoritative on the subject than we would otherwise have been. The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South is a robust campaigner on behalf of the deaf and is the current president of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. We listen to him carefully.

I shall also mention someone who is, alas, no longer in the House, Mr. Laurie Pavitt, the former Member for Brent, South. Laurie and I crossed swords in this Chamber on many occasions. I once represented a constituency with considerable tobacco interests and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will remember, because you were in the same so-called lobby, that Laurie was determined that tobacco advertising should stop. He and I spent many hours in the Chamber debating that issue. It was due to him and his efforts back in 1968 that the first hearing aid Bill was introduced in the House of Lords and the Hearing Aid Council was set up.

One problem with uncontroversial Bills is that they remain unchallenged. People consider them highly desirable and, therefore, they sail through without any real probing. That is why I was interested to see from yesterday's Order Paper, when we received the first inkling of which new clauses and amendments would be tabled, that there were no fewer than five new clauses and six amendments. It would be wholly improper for me to question the Chair's selection today, but we are debating only one new clause and one amendment. Both of those are significant and important and should improve the Bill, but I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will use the discretion for which you are famous to permit us to stray a little on to the subjects covered by the other amendments that have not been selected, or at least will give us some time to mention them on Third Reading. It is important that in such debates we put down markers for the other place to consider when they debate the Bill, providing it receives its Third Reading today.

In the other place, in May 1968, the Hearing Aid Council Bill began its parliamentary journey, which concluded with the setting up of the Hearing Aid Council. The council is made up of Government-appointed members, six of whom are industry representatives and five consumer representatives, and it has an independent chairperson. The general function of the council, according to section 1 of the 1968 Act, is to secure adequate standards of competence and conduct among persons engaged in dispensing hearing aids That is done by registering dispensers of hearing aids, advising on training and regulating trade practices with a code of practice. All private sector suppliers of hearing aids operate under the Hearing Aid Council and its code of practice.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Hearing Aid Council provides the valuable function of setting examinations for hearing aid dispensers and dealing with their results? Does he further agree that it is ludicrous that two different sets of examinations are run for hearing aid dispensers, one by the National Health Service and one by the private hearing aid service? What is the purpose of these two completely different examinations which result in two different streams of people emerging to give this crucial, though small, service to the public?

Mr. Colvin

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for her intervention; but her question should more correctly be directed to the Under-Secretary of State who is to reply to the debate. I agree that there is no logic in what she describes, and it seems pointless to have two sets of examinations, particularly when the Ministry responsible is the Department of Trade and Industry. The Department of Health has been mentioned, and its involvement in this subject is important. There is a good case for saying that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary should not be sitting on the Front Bench today. He is always welcome, but a Minister from the Department of Health would be far more relevant.

The Hearing Aid Council is felt by some, including the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, to be ineffectual because of the limited sanctions it can impose in cases of non-compliance. I was pleased to see that amendment No. 2 has also been selected for debate because the matter of imposing sanctions on people who break the rules and the code of conduct is important.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I shall return to the question of dual qualifications. Perhaps when the Minister responds he will comment on this matter. If there are two layers and two alternative standards within the profession, what will happen in relation to our comparability with our European counterparts? Will people who wish to practise in this country post 1992 have to meet the standards of the private or the public sector?

Mr. Colvin

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which underlines the importance of ensuring the highest standards. We do not need to attain harmonisation in Europe, because that would be too broad a concept. However, we must ensure that the qualifications of professional people are of the highest standard. In most cases we accept people from Europe with doctorates and qualifications of a lower standard than those in this country, but those standards must be brought up to our own, otherwise such people should not be permitted to practise.

Miss Nicholson

Does not my hon. Friend agree that our goal in relation to hearing aid dispensing and the relevant examinations should be to achieve the best practice? Undeniably, the Germans have introduced the best practices and we should take careful note of the way in which the Germans have made the dispensers of hearing aids part of their paramedical team and have a better system than we do. We should not knock our European colleagues when their practices are better than ours.

Mr. Colvin

I am reassured to learn that German standards are higher than ours. Siemens, which is a large company that is trying to take over the Plessey company in my constituency, is much involved with hearing aids. It is a most unwelcome takeover bid—I could not miss the opportunity of making that constituency point. Siemens is an extremely powerful company and it is nonsense to set fines for people who break the rules on hearing aids at £1,000. Siemens could afford to pay £1 million and still not notice it.

Miss Nicholson

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should welcome the Minister who is here today from the Department of Trade and Industry because he will be interested in takeover problems, whereas a Minister responsible for health would not be?

10.30 am
Mr. Colvin

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. If we are not careful, we shall be called to order, and the Minister will not know whether he is listening to a debate on hearing aids or a debate on takeovers.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

I want to sound a note of caution at this point. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) has mentioned standards in Germany. One of the dangers facing a variety of industries in Britain is that the European Commission will start to lay down standards oriented towards the German rather than the British economy. It will give the Germans a great advantage in 1992 and thereafter if we do not lay down slightly more general standards for the future.

Mr. Colvin

I take the point, but my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not reply in detail to it. I am sure that the Minister has heard it.

Miss Nicholson

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Colvin

I am afraid not, because we must make progress.

I want to say a word or two about the background and to refer to the document, "Hearing Aids: the Case for Change", put out by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. Incidentally, I pay tribute to Rosalind Oakley, the institute's parliamentary officer, who has been of enormous help to hon. Members in preparing for this debate and, in general, with matters relating to the deaf. The House will be interested to note that there are 350 ENT consultants in this country. There are 700 audiology technicians and 635 registered private dispensers. But there are 3.9 million people with hearing loss who might be helped by a hearing aid. The Government have been very good about taking advice from the specialists. Their views are always noted, but the RNID's point is that it is high time that the consumers' case—the case of these 3.9 million people—was given a fair hearing.

The present hearing aid services are failing to satisfy many chronic problems and consumers are not receiving the service that they should. In the first place, there are long waiting lists. I mentioned earlier the case of one of my constituents. The average wait for an ENT appointment is 16 weeks, and it can take up to two years to get an appointment. A further 14 weeks can often pass before a consumer is finally fitted with a hearing aid.

There is a staffing crisis in the Health Service. In some parts of the country hearing aid services have virtually collapsed because of these shortages and because of problems with recruiting new audiology technicians. There are certain neglected groups. The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys has carried out a disability survey which identified almost 250,000 adults with hearing loss who are living in communal establishments. Almost without exception, hospital departments cannot offer services to those consumers.

It is also important to record the worries about inconvenient locations. For many people, the hospital hearing aid centre is neither local nor convenient. Consumers are obliged to attend at least two or three times to obtain their first hearing aid, and in most places they must return whenever they need batteries or a replacement aid. That is not good enough.

The RNID also believes that the service is ineffective. After receiving a hearing aid, 20 per cent. of consumers do not use it. Studies and pilot projects have confirmed that use and benefit can be maximised by good advice on fitting and follow-up visits to deal with any problems, but that cannot easily be done by a hospital-based service that is already under strain. We believe that there is inadequate protection.

Many consumers buying an aid privately from a dispenser who visits their home find that they are subject to high pressure sales methods—a point that was touched on earlier. They lack information about the conditions of sale and the back-up services that they can expect. The Hearing Aid Council is charged by Parliament with maintaining standards of trade practice, but it fails to do so effectively.

Training has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West. People who test and fit hearing aids and give advice on their use in the private sector are trained differently from those who do so in the NHS. The two sectors have no commonly agreed and recognised standard of training.

The Government are reviewing the organisation of the National Health Service now. Surely this is a golden opportunity to review hearing aid services. I congratulate the Royal National Institute for the Deaf on having examined the strengths and weaknesses of the NHS alongside the benefits and abuses in the private sector, and on the way in which it has argued the need for a reorganised system in its 28-page booklet, "Hearing Aids the Case for Change".

As my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said, this new clause is similar to one moved in Committee. The fundamental difference is that this one gives the Government the discretion to intervene; it does not place a mandatory obligation on them to do so. We must ask whether the Hearing Aid Council is doing its job properly. There are obvious doubts about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West wants to abolish the council altogether—

Miss Nicholson

I am a sponsor of this excellent Bill and I congratulate its originator sincerely. Ultimately, I believe that the present proposals in no way match the overriding need. We shall have to look further at a later stage than this Bill to find the solution that we seek.

Mr. Colvin

That was a useful intervention. I draw the attention of the House to the speech made by my hon. Friend on this subject earlier this year. Their Lordships should read it, too, because it was important.

We must ask whether the council has succeeded in drawing up adequate standards of competence and codes of trade practice in this important industry. Many people think that it has not. On March 15, my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) asked my hon. Friend the Minister when he last reviewed the Hearing Aid Council's code of practice. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary replied: The Hearing Aid Council Act does not require or permit the Secretary of State to review the council's code of practice. The Act requires the Secretary of State to approve the code proposed by the council and any amendments that it proposes to it. The Secretary of State can make his approval conditional upon certain modifications."—[Official Report, 15 March 1989; Vol. 149, c. 261.] Perhaps this power to impose conditions provides what we want. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will expand a little on that when he replies to the debate.

As things stand, the Secretary of State can only modify standards and codes that are put to him by the council. He has no proactive powers. Even if there were an overwhelming demand for change, the Secretary of State would be quite powerless to act or to intervene if the council itself refused to act. A good example was given in Standing Committee C, and all I shall do is to draw the attention of the House to the opening paragraphs of column 4 of the Official Report, because there is no point in putting something on the record twice.

The Government are demonstrating a benign faith in the composition of the council and are hoping that that will solve the problems. I believe—this is the purpose of new clause 1—that the Secretary of State should have reserve powers to fall back on if necessary. When my hon. Friend replies to the debate, I should like him to explain why he feels that such powers are not necessary.

New clause 1 would allow the Secretary of State to intervene in the running of what we can only describe as a quango. I was under the impression that this Government were pretty good at abolishing quangos. Therefore, I take up the challenge issued by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West and suggest that the Secretary of State might extend his quango hunt in this instance. While it exists, the council must protect the interests of hearing aid users.

Miss Nicholson


Mr. Colvin

Yes, I shall give way once more, but then I must conclude.

Miss Nicholson

The accepted definition of the word "quango" is something appointed and paid for by the Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have an even more peculiar anomaly here, because the Hearing Aid Council may be appointed by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but it pays for its activities itself?

Mr. Colvin

The funding of the Hearing Aid Council is another major issue that should be addressed in the other place. I understand that the council is funded by raising fees from manufacturers registered with it. That raises the question of the role of the council. With the opticians, the General Optical Council is given a much wider brief to undertake training and other duties and has a broader source of funding, including Government money.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me that a substantial proportion of the council's costs over the years has been related to disciplinary proceedings and that the cost of disciplinary proceedings to the council is particularly heavy? Does he agree that one of the merits of the Bill is that under it a disciplinary committee can order a dispenser who has breached its code of discipline to pay the costs of that hearing and that in that way the costs of the council could be significantly reduced?

Mr. Colvin

I am most obliged for that intervention as it raises an extremely important point. I hope that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr, Jones) will succeed in catching your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I am sure that the House would like to know his views on new clause 1.

The new clause would compel the council to investigate complaints from the public. At present it is under no obligation to do so. I do not believe that that proposal would mean that the Government would become interventionist. I understand the reluctance of a Conservative Government to take any form of additional powers. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State made that clear in Committee. The present system, which was set up under the Hearing Aid Council Act 1968, has not worked well and will have little to celebrate on its 21st birthday on 24 May. Incidentally, that is only two days after the birthday of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, who has promoted the Bill, and who, I believe, will be celebrating his 40th birthday two days earlier. I thought that when the Conservative Government were elected 10 years ago, on 3 May—another celebration is coming up soon—they were in the business of abolishing the Department of Trade—

Mr. Forth


10.45 am
Mr. Colvin

Yes, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State was in Europe at the time and probably does not remember the manifesto on which we fought that election.

The Department of Trade and Industry is a wholly interventionist body which we do not need unless we need to intervene in industry. It may have some benefit to the economy, but I reckon that the old Board of Trade was very much better. In fact, it was the old Board of Trade that featured in the original 1968 Act. The nub of what we are saying this morning is that the Department of Trade and Industry is the wrong Department and that the Department of Health should be responsible in this sphere—

Miss Nicholson


Mr. Colvin

No I shall not give way, because I must conclude.

I think that the Royal National Institute for the Deaf got it right. We must ask whether the Hearing Aid Council should be a medical council. We could well look at the workings of the General Optical Council, which is the equivalent of the General Medical Council and the General Dental Council. They are statutory health bodies with twin responsibilities for education and training, and with disciplinary functions. We are in the middle of reforming the National Health Service, and this is a superb opportunity for us to do something about the Hearing Aid Council.

I am a strong supporter of the Bill and support my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, who moved new clause 1 so ably. It is essentially a probing provision. I do not think that there will be any question of pressing it at the end of the debate. We shall listen with great interest to what the Under-Secretary of State says in reply, and I hope that our remarks this morning will be noted carefully in the other place when the Bill reaches there, as I am sure that it will.

Mr. Bowis

I shall not follow some of the discussions that have taken place during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr.Colvin), much as I enjoyed the points that he made, especially on quangos. It seems to be not so much a question of sine qua non as sine qua quango, but we could look at that issue on another day.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for what I know as Anglesey, but what I think Hansard knows as Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on bringing the Bill to the House. It is a good measure and I hope that we shall shortly speed it on its way through its Third Reading and into implementation.

I pay tribute also to the Bill's co-sponsors. It is good that the next two names on the Bill are those of the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr.Ashley) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), who have shown just how an individual can overcome the difficulties of disability and play an active part, not least in the highest chamber of the realm.

However, we need to assist those who, through no fault of their own, cannot achieve such heights and ambitions, and this measure is geared to making life a little easier for them. The House of Commons is at its best when dealing with such issues. It comes together to represent those who need our assistance, and this is one of those occasions on which there is virtual unanimity of view that we want to do our best by such people. I am sure that the promoter of the Bill will agree with that.

It was interesting to note that the record of the proceedings in Committee reflected the good will on all sides. If 1 have one slight criticism of the Bill's sponsor it is that he seemed occasionally all too ready to accede to the Minister's persuasive powers, not least on questions of comparability. I understand the reasons for seeking comparability with other measures, but occasionally one should say that, if a solution is right for one problem but out of kilter with other measures, perhaps it is the oilier measures that should be brought into line. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr.Hunter) will develop that theme.

The key sentence in the briefing material provided by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf was the request that, whatever we did to improve the service, it should he geared to the consumer and not to the specialist or the salesman. That is right, because we must put the consumer first.

We all have knowledge of deafness. Some hon. Members may have close family members who suffer from deafness, as I have. In some instances, deafness is present from birth, while in others it comes later in life. It is almost worse when it comes later in life, because then one knows what one has lost. For someone who has had full hearing earlier in life, the frustration that comes when hearing starts to fade is extremely painful and difficult for others to understand. Perhaps the measure will enable more people to understand that frustration. The purpose of the new clause is to push that a little further.

I have experience in my family of the provision of equipment, and I know that a long time is needed for adjustment. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West spoke about that in the excellent debate that she initiated. All too often, there is a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. We need to ensure that there is a good basic after-sales service. That service should apply not only to the equipment, to make sure that it is in working order, but to the user, to make sure that he is in working order and able to use the equipment adequately. Above all, it is a question of making sure that the after-sales servicer has the patience to encourage and train the user of the equipment.

I shall give another example of an area in which we need to keep pushing in order to improve the service. I remember a visit I paid to a consitutent: eventually, after a great deal of knocking on the door, I gained admittance and found the elderly lady watching television with the sound turned off. I asked her why she did not have the sound on. Eventually, when she could understand what I was saying, she said,"I cannot hear the sound so there is no point in having it on.:" I asked her why she did not get a hearing aid, and she said, "I have a hearing aid, but I cannot make it work." She had a soundless television and was leading a soundless existence, even though she had a hearing aid that she could wear. The problem was that she could not cope with the little wheel that adjusted the volume, because she had arthritic fingers.

Codes of practice are needed in such cases to make sure that alternatives are provided for such people. We do not want the take-it-or-leave-it attitude one sometimes sees. In that instance, I spoke to somebody from the industry and he was helpful in locating a suitable piece of equipment. However, my meeting with him was by pure chance, and the first people that I asked from the social services and elsewhere did not know of anything that was suitable for people with arthritic fingers.

The new clause takes us a little further in keeping the pressure on. I know that the Hearing Aid Council is involved in training and education qualifications. The measure may encourage the council to play a wider role in the community so that we can get closer to the prevention of some hearing problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) talked about noise, which may be the noise of shooting or of music in the ear. If we can prevent, we will not need to cure, but when we need to cure, we must do it with compassion and patience, using all the technology that is at our disposal.

Miss Nicholson

Hon. Members were kind enough to let me intervene during their speeches. I should like to comment on some of the important points raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) and for Battersea (Mr. Bowis). The first matter is prevention. I think first of the 12-year-old who is profoundly deaf because his mother had measles, although I suspect it was probably German measles. What more compelling reason could there be for seeking to transfer responsibility for hearing aid provision from the Department of Trade and Industry—unfairly beleaguered in the debate over its interventionist stance, but that is another story—to the Department of Health?

The prevention of deafness through immunisation against German measles should be common in this country. I was distressed to learn that a boy of 12 should have been born profoundly deaf because his mother had what I suspect must have been German measles. Presumably, that was because she had not been immunised. I am deafened because my mother had German measles when she was carrying me, but I am 47 and when I was born immunisation was not commonplace. The magnificent thing about being a woman Member of Parliament is that one is perennially young, which is a great relief. The men get older, but we do not.

Children should not be born deaf through lack of immunisation and I am anxious to see the Department of Health attending to immunisation through education programmes persuading mothers to be immunised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said that technology and dispensers must be user-friendly. Here I must part company with him, despite his great sympathy and understanding for those who suffer from a handicap and fail to find the proper technical provision. I have first-class hearing aids and sometimes can hear all too much in this place.

The National Health Service is technologically far outstripped by private sector provision of hearing aids. That shows that competition is important, because it means that innovation thrives, most properly, in the private sector. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) would not wish me to press that point too strongly. There are many different varieties of hearing aids with different refinements in the private sector, but the National Health Service is still in the age of the dinosaur.

I also take issue with my hon. Friend about the quality of the after-care service or the dispensers in the National Health Service. The after-care service is first-class and cannot be faulted. National Health Service dispensers are gravely let down by the paucity of technological development in the hearing aids that they provide. That is the problem, and there is no point in saying that the 250 or so varieties of hearing aid that the private dispensers can offer will ever be transported into the National Health Service system. Technological change continues and it outstrips the NHS.

We have to take NHS funding for hearing aid provision away from the major hospitals and into the private sector, into the high street. What a ludicrous situation; there are well over 3.5 million people who need hearing aids—I believe that that estimate is far too low—yet the way we offer them hearing aids is to force them to have appointments with 350 ear, nose and throat surgeons who surely have better things to do, since probably more than 95 per cent. of people with hearing loss cannot be helped surgically. Thus the time of ENT surgeons is wasted, and people are disadvantaged for no good purpose. The screening method in the National Health Service for the provision of hearing aids is so fine that it is effectively stopping people from getting the aids.

11 am

It is crucial that the best training be offered and the best qualifications obtained within the dispensing service; hence the need for one set of examinations. It is no good suggesting that the hospital examinations are superior to the private ones: that is not so—they are merely different. It is very important that there be one standard under the Secretary of State for Health, because, unlike the provision of spectacles, if someone is given a significantly wrong hearing aid, his hearing can be irrevocably damaged.

That is why the training of dispensers to the highest possible standard is most important. I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs, together with the Secretary of State for Health, to look at the experience in Europe, particularly in Germany, and let us have a Hearing Aid Council under the Secretary of State for Health, together with a first-class self-funded trade association that elects its own members democratically and is not dictated to by the Government of the day. We do not want this peculiar, unbalanced animal, which unfairly forces the private hearing aid industry to pay for an organisation whose members it cannot elect. I believe that that is the way forward, even though this is an excellent Bill, albeit a temporary measure.

Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich)

As one of the sponsors of the Bill, I should like to add my congratulations on what I believe will be an admirable first step in the necessary improvements for people with hearing loss. I have first-hand experience of the hearing aid syndrome, being the mother of a 16-year-old boy who lost his hearing as a result of my having rubella in pregnancy. All too sadly, that problem has not been satisfactorily resolved.

There has been considerable debate about the quality of hearing aids offered by the National Health Service. To date, my experience has been entirely of services offered by the NHS. There are inadequacies and major problems. It is a tragedy for a teenager to see aids available in the private sector that are far more discreet than those they have to wear at an age when they are very sensitive about their appearance.

The National Health Service, however, is a most tolerant organisation for young people who have to wear hearing aids. It is a fact that young people and hearing aids are often rather incompatible. On occasion, my son has jumped into a swimming pool having forgotten to take his hearing aid out, and has ruined it. He has also, in a fit of temper, thrown a hearing aid across the room. In such cases, the NHS has a strength we would never find in the private sector. It understands the frustrations and difficulties faced by young people wearing hearing aids, and it will replace them in such circumstances.

Mr. Ashley

I agree with every word spoken by the hon. Lady. Does she not agree with me that what she is saying makes a powerful case for more resources to be devoted to the National Health Service?

Mrs. Barnes

I agree absolutely. Like many other parents of children with hearing aids, I am facing strong pressure from my son for a hearing aid that fits entirely in the ear. His consultant has advised me that it would be entirely suitable for his hearing loss. As a teenager growing into the difficult years, he is naturally most concerned not just about how well he can hear but about how he looks. In fact, if he had to choose, he would often decide that how he looks is more important than how well he can hear. He will pretend he can hear when he cannot in situations when he would feel embarrassed to wear a hearing aid. This situation presents a powerful case for what the NHS offers young people.

If the only options available at the moment are in the private sector, I pose a serious question about the penalties applicable for malpractice. If, as I suspect, I will have to spend a considerable sum over the next few years, once my son is fully grown—growing children make very different demands on the hearing service than do fully grown adults —I believe the protections should be very sound. I feel that the service should be free, since I believe my son's hearing loss is no fault of his own—and no fault of mine, either.

All too frequently we hear of pensioners having laid out large sums for hearing aids that just do not work. They either whistle and distort sound or they pick up background noise disproportionately. For one reason or another, these people just cannot get on with their hearing aids. Although the NHS may be slow and there may be inconvenience for out-patients, the follow-up service is guaranteed. This aspect must be considered carefully in relation to the private sector. I strongly support further regulation and certainly stiffening the penalties against anyone guilty of malpractice in this area.

I return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). We are considering a health problem because of which, through no fault of their own, people suffer severe hearing loss. They need a hearing aid. I believe that technological developments within the hearing aid industry should be made available within the NHS.

Mr. Forth

I must resist any temptation to be drawn down the path of replying to some of the valid and knowledgeable points made by hon. Members about provisions through the National Health Service vis-a-vis the private sector, or about the responsibilities of the Department of Trade and Industry vis-a-vis the Department of Health. As I see it, these are not legitimately appropriate points for this debate, although I believe that hon. Members were correct to include them.

I will concentrate on the new clause, and, first, I shall deal with the two more subsidiary points. New clause 1 proposes to change the phrase "Board of Trade" in the original 1968 Act to "Secretary of State". I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) that this was done some time ago and the Secretary of State for Health has already identified it in the current version of the Act. Thus, that part of the new clause is redundant.

The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) referred to a matter that has not been picked up by many other hon. Members when he said that he preferred "shall investigate" to "may investigate". I understand his reasons, but at present the system is that complaints are initially considered by the chairman and registrar of the council. They make a judgment whether the complaint is sufficiently serious to be referred to the disciplinary committee. That acts as a very useful filter.

The trouble with the wording of the new clause is that, if we were to force the disciplinary committee to consider every complaint, no matter how trivial or irrelevant—and there are a few like that—we would place an additional burden on the council and the committee and its resources. That is unnecessary, because there is every evidence that the present system works satisfactorily against a background—this is a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) made earlier—of a number of complaints. However, the House might want to be aware that the number of complaints is surprisingly small.

The main point at issue is the argument whether we want to give the Secretary of State greater positive or proactive powers in this matter. I have listened to the debate carefully, and I have re-read the Hearing Aid Council Act 1968. I remain convinced that the provisions in the original Act, which so far we have not seen fit to change, are still adequate to deal with the kind of things that will be before the council.

According to the 1968 Act, the council shall submit to the Secretary of State for his written approval any standard or code drawn up. The Secretary of State, in approving that standard or code, may make the approval conditional on its being modified in such a manner as, he may require. The Act contains real powers at the moment. Those powers are satisfactory and adequate, particularly in this context.

Many hon. Members have referred to the composition of the council. In changing the council's composition, as the Standing Committee did and as I hope the House will endorse today, we have produced a council that will have a different outlook and will look more closely at codes of conduct, training and many other matters that may be within its remit. It will therefore be able to have a relationship with the Secretary of State within the existing provisions of the 1968 Act that will operate much better, in a way that hon. Members would want.

For the reasons that I gave in Standing Committee I would, with regret, strongly urge the House not to accept the new clause if it is pressed.

Mr. Colvin

The Minister places a benign faith in the council's composition. My hon. Friend replied to a question from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on 1 February. He stated that he carefully consulted certain bodies when making appointments to the Hearing Aid Council. He said that, in particular, he consulted the Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists and the Hearing Aid Industry Association about appointments representing the dispensers. He also referred to a long list of organisations that he consulted which have technical knowledge of deafness and audiological technical knowledge with reference to appointments of members representing 'the interests of the hard of hearing. I will not read out that list, because I gave my hon. Friend the Minister a copy before the debate started.

The whole question of nominations is terribly important. How much does my hon. Friend consult? Will he tell us a little more about the consultation process? How much advice does he take from members of the public? In his reply on 1 February, my hon. Friend said that he would consult and that he was prepared to listen to representations made by any member of the public with a problem who cared to come and see him.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend has made an important point and I can give him the assurances he seeks. I agree that it will always be important fully to consult interested and knowledgeable bodies in these matters against the background of the change in the council's composition agreed by the Standing Committee, which will give users and consumers greater representation.

We also believe that we should, and give an undertaking that we will, consult those bodies to which my hon. Friend has referred, but, as I stated in my reply on 1 February: it is open to any member of the public with genuine involvement in the dispensing of hearing aids or with the hearing-impaired or who has specialised technical knowledge of deafness to make nominations. All nominations are considered on their merits."— [Official Report, 1 February 1989; Vol. 146, c. 262.] I go further than that: we will always be prepared to consider the names of people given to us in good faith who could claim to represent the consumer of the product in a more general sense or in a private capacity, instead of necessarily always representing a particular body.

We have the facility for, and we intend to have, the widest possible representation on the reconstituted council to ensure that it is thoroughly representative and can carry the confidence of the dispensers, the industry and the consumers. After all, we must be most concerned with the users of the product and to guarantee, as far as we can, to deliver a satisfactory product that will meet their needs.

11.15 am
Mr. Colvin

That was a very useful reply. How many of the 12 bodies which my hon. Friend the Minister listed in his reply on 1 February took the trouble to see him? We are saying that there must be consultations and the door must be open. However, do people take the trouble to put forward nominations?

Mr. Forth

When we look for nominees, we find that most of the bodies respond in one way or another. Our liaison and contact with them is, as far as I am aware, to their satisfaction and is fully workable. If there are any difficulties, I want to hear about them to ensure that they do not persist.

Perhaps I have not replied to all the points that my hon. Friends may have raised, and I apologise for that. If the new clause is pressed, I regret that I must ask the House to reject it, for the reasons that I have given. On that basis, I hope that we can make good progress and see the matter to a conclusion.

Mr. Hunter

I am in something of a dilemma. I genuinely believe that this Bill would be better with the addition of the new clause and, after nearly two hours of debate, I detect that quite a number of right hon. and hon. Members agree with me.

On the other hand, my hon. Friend the Minister is very positive in his assurance that the new clause is not needed. Whenever possible, one wants to avoid the hassle of a Division on a Friday morning. There is a way forward. As several hon. Members have said, hon. Members on both sides of the House will be watching the workings of the Bill very carefully. We may choose to come back to it in future. On that understanding, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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