HC Deb 28 April 1989 vol 151 cc1220-38
Mr. Leigh

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 5, leave out `£1,000 and insert '£13,000'.

We have spent nearly one and three quarters hours debating new clause 1. Given that this is a worthwhile Bill and that such private Members' Bills are delicate creatures, I intend to speak very briefly.

Just because I have chosen to be brief, I hope that the House is not fooled into believing that this is anything but a very important amendment, that has much support. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will take the amendment seriously.

Hitherto, the only sanction available was to remove a dispenser's name from the register. The penalty is now set at £1,000. In this regard, I want to refer to some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) in Standing Committee. He made some worthwhile comments about the lack of efficacy of such a low penalty and he referred to the turnover of the companies involved.

A brief from the Royal National Institute for the Deaf bears that point out. It states: The RNID very much welcomes the Bill including the above measures, however, it believes that the suggestion in the Bill for a fine of £1,000 is inadequate. The cost of a hearing aid is between £300 and £800. In some cases individuals need not one, but two aids, with a resultant cost in excess of £ 1,000. Clearly the customer may have suffered a loss in excess of £1,000. It cannot be right that the guilty dispenser should pay a lesser price. The brief that right hon. and hon. Members received sums up the remarks of the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South in Standing Committee C.

When I read the proceedings of that Committee, I was surprised to learn of the turnover enjoyed by companies in the hearing aid industry. Perhaps I should not be, given the number of people who, sadly, suffer from deafness. In the year ending October 1987, Scrivens Ltd., for example, had a turnover of more than £8 million, and in the year ending May 1987, Ultratone Ltd. achieved turnover of more than £11 million and net profits after taxation in excess of £500,000.

In Standing Committee C, the right hon. Gentleman spoke of a penalty of £20,000. My hon. Friend the Minister rejected that proposal, saying that that figure was far too high. However, many of us believe that, given the turnover and profits available to many companies in the industry, a £1,000 penalty is derisory. It may be argued that such a penalty is in line with that stipulated in the Opticians Act 1958. That Act is complex, and I do not claim to be an expert, but it seems to me that the other penalties that can be imposed on opticians are more severe, and the regulatory framework tighter, than in the hearing aid industry. The RNID brief points out: The Council is poorly equipped to discipline dispensers, and thus has a poor record of disciplinary action. The Disciplinary Committee of the Council has met just five times since 1976, and in those twelve years it has struck off only one dispenser. In the 21 years of its existence it has met only twelve times and struck off only seven dispensers. This contrasts with over 300 cases of complaint sent to Mr. Wyn Jones. The powers of the Hearing Aid Council are weak, and for the first time we are giving it the authority to impose fines. Given the industry's high turnover, my hon. Friend must surely accept that a £1,000 fine is very low. I do not suggest a fine as high as £20,000. In Standing Committee C, my hon. Friend the Minister made pertinent points about such a high penalty conflicting with the practice elsewhere. However, I understand that accountants can be fined £3,000. In view of the potential financial loss and anguish caused to the mainly elderly people who are vulnerable to malpractice in the hearing aid industry, it is not too much to ask that the penalty be increased to £3,000.

Mr. Ashley

I support the amendment, the case for which was put very well by the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), who became positively brilliant when he quoted my speech in Standing Committee. I put my case in detail on that occasion and do not propose to go over that ground again. However, the hon. Gentleman correctly reported my suggestion for a £20,000 fine. I support the proposal to increase the penalty from £1,000 to £3,000. I suggested £20,000 because that was the figure suggested to the Royal National Institute for the Deaf by a private hearing aid dispenser as a reasonable sum. I did not pluck that figure out of thin air. A £3,000 fine would be reasonable and the case for it is very strong. I hope that the Minister will give that proposal his sympathetic consideration.

Sir Charles Morrison (Devizes)

I also strongly support the amendment. The vast majority of hearing aid dispensers are people of the highest integrity and of complete honesty. None the less, the Bill is not attempting to deal with the vast majority but with a minority—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. The conversation that is being conducted by the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends is interfering with his speech, which the Chair would like to hear.

Sir Charles Morrison

I was not quite sure whether I could hear it because my hearing aid was turned up too loudly, or whether it was the fault of my hon. Friends.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I could hear two speeches through my hearing aid.

Sir Charles Morrison

The amendment seeks to deal with the potentially small number of dispensers who take deaf people for a ride. In Committee, the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Ashley) made a short, sharp and pertinent speech about the need to increase the fine to £20,000. I greatly sympathise with his sentiments. However, as is the way in Committee on a private Member's Bill, and given the extent of support for the Bill, there was great anxiety to complete its Committee stage swiftly. Therefore, those right hon. and hon. Members who served on the Committee were reluctant to speak at length on any subject for fear that the Bill might run out of time. I am delighted that, in the larger forum 01 the House, we have an opportunity to return to the subject of penalties and to discuss it in greater depth.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the penalty should not be out of line with those applied in comparable circumstances. He quoted the Opticians Act 1958 and the Solicitors Act 1974. The obvious reply is that both Acts are out of date in relation to the penalties that they incorporate. In reality, a £1,000 penalty in 1958 is equivalent to at least £10,000 today. Even the Solicitors Act penalty of £3,000 in 1974 is the equivalent of about £8,000 now. Therefore, the right hon. Gentlemen's proposal in Committee for a £20,000 penalty was not particularly oppressive, and the modest increase to £3,000 proposed in the amendment is the barest minimum level of fine that should be imposed.

People suffering from hearing defects can be very vulnerable to the activities of the dishonest person attempting to make a fast buck. Hearing deficiencies are extremely frustrating. If one takes an eye test and, as a result, purchases a pair of spectacles, one immediately knows whether those spectacles allow one to see better. If need be, one can hand them back and complain that they are not good enough. However, it takes quite a time to become used to a hearing aid. One has to work one's way in, so to speak—and I am still doing so. It is very easy for the slick salesman to say, "Give it another six weeks," but at the end of those six weeks it would probably be impossible for the purchaser of a dud hearing aid to persuade the person from whom it was purchased to take it back—even if that person were available. The level of fine proposed is much more of a deterrent, to try to ensure that the slick salesman is made to think twice before he sets about his dishonest activities.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is prepared to give that aspect further consideration. I do not understand why penalties that were fixed 15 and 30 years ago in other legislation are considered relevant comparisons in specifying a fine that is to be included in a Bill in 1989.

Mr. Forth

We are dealing with an important point, but I shall try to deal with it briefly while, I hope, doing justice to it. I am somewhat surprised at the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh). Bearing in mind his profession and regard for the law and its niceties and subtleties, he will understand better than most why I received strong advice from the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office that it was important that we retain an element of balance, comparability and relativity in the penalties available to the law. That must be achieved not only in magistrates courts and Crown courts but in the context of the Bill. I reiterate the point that I made in Standing Committee—we must not allow the penalties to get out of line on one item, no matter how tempted we are. I am afraid that the amendment threatens to do that.

11.30 am

I should like to make a more important and, I hope, more persuasive point. We must pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones), who spotted very early one of the great weaknesses in the Hearing Aid Council Act 1968. No provision was made for an escalation of penalties. There was either a total penalty or none. The hon. Gentleman persuaded me very early that that matter would be one of the key factors in amending the Act. That is why the legislation, as amended, provides for the escalation of penalties, starting with an admonition, increasing to a monetary penalty of £1,000 and going on—this is the key point—to talk about suspensions and, ultimately, removal from the register.

That fully meets the points made by the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) and my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle and for Devizes (Mr. Morrison). No matter how large or powerful a company may be, suspension or erasure from the register will impose a much greater penalty than any fine that the legislation imposes.

I hope that I can persuade the House to do as the Standing Committee saw fit to do—not to be tempted by the arguments to impose higher levels of penalty but to look again at the escalation of penalties provided in Standing Committee through the hon. Member for Ynys Môn. I strongly recommend that the House reject the amendment if it is pressed to a Vote. The Government are unable to support it.

Mr. Leigh

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), I do not think that the House, which is anxious that the Bill should be passed, wants a Division at this stage, but I am not entirely satisfied with the reply of my hon. Friend the Minister. He referred to suspension, as he did in Standing Committee, but that is not a practical proposition in many cases and is unlikely to occur.

My hon. Friend the Minister spoke also of the need for balance. In Committee he said: I have taken the advice of the legal authorities and of the Home Office. The proposals would cause problems …making an offence triable upon indictment."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 April 1989; c.7.] My hon. Friend did not make that point today. I should have liked him to tell us more about the legal advice that he received. I am not convinced that a penalty of £3,000 would cause problems with the Lord Chancellor's Department, but I am prepared to accept that my hon. Friend receives legal advice of a far higher standard than is available to me. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

11.33 am
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones

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

I have listened intently to the debate on Report, and I am pleased that the Bill can be commended to the House for Third Reading. When I was fortunate enough to win the ballot some time ago, little did I think that I would be moving the Third Reading. Hon. Members who have been successful in private Members' ballots are inundated with requests from all manner of worthy causes to present Bills to the House, but I was determined from an early stage to present a measure that would assist the hard of hearing, especially the elderly.

One of the first acts after ensuring that I had a measure worthy of support was to make sure that that support came from all parties. I must place on record my grateful thanks to all those who have supported my Bill, including the hon. Members for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), and especially the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). I should like to thank also the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who has been extremely supportive, and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), who is not in her place. Those names show the wide support for the Bill.

It struck me as remarkable that one in 10 people suffer from some form of hearing loss. The proportion among elderly people is one in four. Hearing loss leads to tremendous social isolation, a matter that is little understood. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South who has done tremendous work and has raised the profile of this issue. That we can discuss the Bill on Third reading is due in great measure to his efforts.

Eighty per cent. of those people who acquire hearing aids do so through the National Health Service, but a significant proportion—20 per cent.—get their hearing aids from the private sector, the sector with which the Bill deals. About 650 private hearing aid dispensers are registered with the Hearing Aid Council and we are complaining about the activities of only a small number of them.

I have received almost 300 letters from people during the Bill's passage complaining about the activities of a small group of dispensers. Out of all the complaints, 84 per cent. refer to six companies; 66 per cent. to three companies; and, even more startling, nearly 40 per cent. to one company. The complaints show that only a small number of companies are involved, but they cause distress to hundreds of elderly people.

Mr. Colvin

I genuinely do not know the answer to this point. How many complaints must be made before a company is struck off the register? How many companies have been struck off the register since the council came into being?

Mr. Jones

My information is that only one company has been struck off the register in the past 20 years or so. I do not think that the council would tot up the number of complaints before it struck off a company. It would consider the nature and seriousness of a complaint.

What complaints do we need to address? A small number of companies are using high sales pressure techniques and coupon advertising to get at vulnerable elderly people. Many of us have seen coupon advertisements in popular newspapers inviting people with hearing loss to respond and making tremendous claims for their products. Because the industry has dominated the council for so long, the code of practice is weak.

When sending literature to someone who has responded to an advertisement, a hearing aid dispenser is entitled to tell him, "We shall call and visit you to discuss your request unless you tell us that you do not want us to come." That is a weakness in the current code of practice. Inevitably, when someone asks for more information, a salesman will call, and he will often deploy all the high-pressure techniques at his disposal. The people affected are elderly, vulnerable and socially isolated who have been preyed upon by a number of dispensers and their sales people.

Unfortunately, as we have heard today, it takes time to adapt to a hearing aid. A hearing aid is not like spectacles, whose suitability can be judged immediately, according to whether one can see through them. Experts tell me that it takes up to a month or even longer to adjust to the sound that comes out of a hearing aid and to pick up the differences in sound. Moreover, one has to adapt to wearing a hearing aid. When it first arrives, one cannot wear it for very long at a time; one must get used to it. By the time someone discovers that a hearing aid is not suitable, the salesman may be long gone and impossible to trace. The complaints mechanism that we have now is wholly inappropriate.

To illustrate my case, let me describe two of the 300 complaints that I received. An elderly couple were visited by a salesman who told them that a particular model was appropriate. They did not have any cash in the house, but the salesman persuaded them to go to the bank with him to withdraw the cash and to hand it over there and then.

Perhaps even more significant was the case of the elderly lady who had looked after her parents all her life. She had suffered a hearing loss and was socially isolated, having been unable to make friends because she was looking after her parents. Her parents left her a small sum, and she decided that she would like a hearing aid. That hearing aid accounted for all the money that she had been left. She then found that it was inappropriate. She had spent all her money on it, thinking that she could go out into the community and socialise more because she would be able to hear. That poor woman was preyed upon by the dispensers and their sales person and she had no redress. There are many other cases like that, and the Bill is designed to address them.

The Bill is a modest measure—private Members' Bills are, by their very nature, modest measures—but it is important because, under the 1968 Act, the council can deal only with matters of serious misconduct, and the only sanction that it has is to strike a dispenser off the register. The council is reluctant to use that simple sanction because it deprives a dispenser of his or her livelihood. As we have heard, it has been used on only one occasion.

We need, therefore, to increase the range of disciplinary offences that the council can deal with. Unfortunately, the highly legalistic way in which complaints are dealt with at present is very expensive for the council. That is no criticism of the promoter of the 1968 Bill, which was a ten-minute Bill. It is remarkable that Laurie Pavitt managed to get a ten-minute Bill on to the statute book; it is difficult enough when one succeeds in the ballot.

The Bill seeks to make a breach of the code of practice a disciplinary offence and it includes a range of penalties that the council can employ. We also make it clear in the Bill that, if a dispenser is found guilty, he can be ordered to pay the costs of a hearing, which is borne by the council at present.

Most significant is the change in the composition of the council, which goes to the heart of the matter. For years, complaints have gone unnoticed by the council because it is dominated by the industry. The council should include more consumer representation; the consumer's voice must be heard so that complaints can be dealt with more effectively and efficiently, enabling us to root out the small group of companies that have caused so much distress.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

The hon. Gentleman has said that the Bill is aimed at a small group of companies. Are the companies large enough easily to afford to pay a fine of £3,000 or perhaps even £20,000?

Mr. Jones

That is a good point, although the hon. Gentleman has put me in a dilemma because I should have preferred a higher monetary penalty. But if we changed the amount of the penalty for a disciplinary offence, which is £1,000, we should also have to change the penalty for the criminal offence that is committed by a person who is unregistered, which is also £1,000. To maintain a balance, we must accept, unfortunately, that the figure must be kept at £1,000. I agree that the companies could well afford to pay a higher fine, but we must remember that there are other sanctions such as suspension and erasure and that more than one penalty can he imposed under the Bill. That overcomes some of the concerns that have been expressed about the level of penalty.

I thank the Minister for his positive response to the Bill. He has been supportive and constructive, and he has listened, although there are many points on which we have failed to agree. I hope that the Bill will have the wholehearted support of the House.

11.48 am
Mr. Barry Porter

I note that I did not figure in the plethora of thanks of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones), and I was not altogether surprised. I again declare my interest as an adviser to the trade association that acts on behalf of the dispensers.

Millions of hearing aids have been dispensed by the private sector since the Hearing Act Council was set up, and the promoter of the Bill has been entirely fair in pointing out that, in this big trade, the number of complaints and the number of companies involved in those complaints has been very small. I re-emphasise that. The trade has made a distinct and positive contribution to helping the hard of hearing. In that regard, I pray in aid what the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) said in Committee. He, too, said that an enormous contribution was made by the private sector and that it was largely beneficial.

Mr. Colvin

I followed this morning's debate closely. The manufacturers are clearly under attack. Would it not assist everyone concerned if there were a stamp of approval? I have followed up two advertisements in the national press during the past fortnight. I have received brochures from the manufacturers and I searched them to see whether in the literature there was anything to say, "This organisation is approved by the Royal National Institute for the Dea' or "We have the full approval of the Hearing Aid Council". Something similar to a British standards stamp would assure people that the hearing aid which they are buying has been tested, approved and is a legitimate product.

Mr. Porter

I have some sympathy with that view. Those whom I advise would be willing to discuss any such suggestion sympathetically if there are no practical contrary considerations. I cannot think of any at the moment.

It occurred to me this morning that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn has tried to graft on to an Act about trade regulation provisions to turn it into a consumer protection Act. I am not sure whether the graft will take. I am gratified to note that the Minister said that a fundamental review of the National Health Service in general and of provision for the deaf and hard of hearing is going on. Perhaps the appropriate time to discuss such matters in detail will be in a year or so when, presumably, the Government's proposals will come forward. I hope that that is the case.

I do not blame the hon. Member for Ynys Môn for the graft. I level that accusation against my hon. Friend the Minister. His fertile imagination produced the new 4 : 4 : 4 composition of the Hearing Aid Council. It is a matter of opinion, but the promoter of the Bill would have been happy with one additional consumer to balance the council at 6 : 6. After some thought, and reservations having been expressed, those whom I advise were willing to accept that composition.

The Minister has made his decision, and the Standing Committee followed it without too much difficulty. As the Bill leaves the House, one guess, that the composition will be 4 : 4 : 4. It would be remiss of me not to point out one or two difficulties that will arise as a result of that.

Consumers have been nominated traditionally—indeed by necessity—from organisations whose membership primarily involves National Health Service hearing aid users. I refer to the British Association of the Hard of Hearing, Age Concern and other organisations. People who buy hearing aids privately are not members of associations. it would be extremely difficult to find consumer nominations which were likely to have a balanced view of the national and private health sectors. One can advance that argument further in relation to medical nominations. It is obvious that virtually all medical and paramedical employees in this country are either directly or indirectly associated with the NHS.

It follows that medical nominees would also have a leaning towards the National Health Service and, as a side effect, a leaning towards the consumer element. On the newly constituted .

There is a fear, which is justified to an extent, that the composition will not be 4:4:4 and that there will be eight consumers and four people from the industry. The industry considers that that is out of balance. It would have been much happier with the original suggestion by the promoter of the Bill. It is feared that there will also be difficulty in finding sufficient consumers to meet the appropriate requirement.

I am told—this is a matter of some detail with which I will not bore the House, as I sense that the House wants to dispose of this matter fairly soon—that there will be difficulties in manning subcommittees and with people being on disciplinary and technical committees. The industry seems to think that it would be difficult to find people of the appropriate calibre. It fears that the new composition will be biased against the private sector. I hope that the Minister will try to alleviate those worries.

The problem of funding has already been mentioned. The council was a trade regulatory body. Although the trade had the majority of members on the council, it was content with, if not happy about, funding it. In 1987, its expenditure was £33,000, and in 1988 it was £73,000. They are not enormous sums of money, but they are not inconsiderable. With the balance of power on the council being so fundamentally changed, is it right that the trade should be expected to fund it completely?

Oftel, a consumer organisation which was set up by the Government to protect consumers against the predatory habits of British Telecom, is funded by the taxpayer. What is the difference between Oftel and the Hearing Aid council? It has been suggested that there is an element of taxation without representation. That is probably going a bit overboard. Why on earth should the industry be expected to fund something which the House had determined should be set up for the benefit of the consumer and taxpayer? The matter cannot be lightly brushed aside. My hon. Friend the Minister should exercise his fertile imagination a little more.

Mr. Riddick

My hon. Friend mentioned Oftel. Consumers should pay for the protection which Oftel provides for them. No doubt British Telecom would provide the majority of income in that case. British Telecom's income comes from its customers. An important principle is at stake, and it could easily be applied to the hearing aid industry.

Mr. Porter

I listened to my hon. Friend's intervention with great interest. I assume that he supports what I am saying, but I am not entirely certain.

Mr. Riddick

I did not support what my hon. Friend said. I suggested that consumers should pay for the protection which is being provided through the industry. Obviously the industry gets its income from consumers. I was putting the opposite view.

Mr. Porter

I do not agree, but I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that view into account when he makes up his mind about my points on funding.

The trade has some reservations about the Bill. I hope that when we next discuss the matter a Minister from the Department of Health will be present. Today's debate is not entirely relevant to trade. However, it is the only vehicle that we have.

I thank the promoter of the Bill for the courtesy which he has shown me in our discussions on the Bill over the past weeks. The Hearing Aid Association has been grateful for the way in which he has approached the matter. He has not castigated or made false or exaggerated attacks on the industry which has done much positive and beneficial work. Although I have some mild criticism of the Minister, I thank him for the consultation procedure, particularly in respect of council nominations. I hope that the Bill will have the effect which the hon. Member for Ynys ôn wishes. We want those people who are a slur on the industry to be weeded out. I hope that my reservations about the composition of the council will be taken in the spirit in which they were delivered.

Mr. Ashley

I thank the sponsor of the Bill the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) and congratulate him on getting the Bill through to Third Reading. He has been both diplomatic and determined. I have been struck by his skills in conducting the Bill through the House, through Committee and here on Third Reading. He has been magnificent and I offer him my warmest congratulations.

The original Bill was drawn up by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf some months ago and I had pleasure in presenting it on behalf of the institute. It worked very hard on the Bill. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) was kind enough to mention that I am president of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and it is in that capacity that I offer my congratulations to the sponsor and express appreciation to everyone who has been involved in the Bill. The RNID is grateful for their work.

I should like to add my warmest thanks to Miss Rosalind Oakley, who has worked hard on the Bill. She has briefed hon. Members on both sides of the House and has ensured that we know all the arguments. The hearing aid dispensers have ensured that hon. Members know their views, and I appreciate the work of Miss Oakley. I am grateful, too, for the work of Mr. John Healey.

It has been said in the House that the Government will give the Bill a fair wind. The Minister has given it more than a fair wind; his support has given it a stiff breeze, for which I am glad.

I am also the chairman of the all-party disablement group; that group, too, warmly supports the Bill.

Laurie Pavitt rendered a great service to disabled people by putting through the original Bill, because in those days there was not the same understanding of the problems of deaf people. Laurie Pavitt did a phenomenal job in getting that Bill on to the statute book. I am sorry that he is not here to see the passage of this Bill, which has been built upon his original Bill.

The essence of the Bill is that it tackles the scandal of the exploitation of deaf people by shifty salesmen using high-pressure sales techniques. Deaf people are often harrassed, especially older people, with unsolicited visits by salesmen and by unscrupulous advertising. Some of the advertisements are an absolute disgrace because they are so grossly misleading. My blood has boiled when I have seen them. Efforts have been made to curtail them, but without succes. However, they will now be curtailed by the Bill.

What makes me angry about such dispensers is that they have made deaf people feel ashamed of deafness. The awful thing is that those advertisements have implied that deafness is something to hide and of which to be ashamed. Dispensers have done that on the pretext of helping deaf people, which is a prime example of double-talking, double-dealing and double-crossing.

As the promoter of the Bill and the hon. Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) have pointed out, it is only a small group of dispensers who do such things. The vast majority do a good job. I am glad to repeat that point, which I made in Committee. However, that small group causes serious distress to deaf people. Those dispensers have also blackened the name of the hearing aid industry.

The main provisions of the Bill extend the range of complaints that can be investigated and the range of sanctions available. Those are important advances. However, the crucial provision is the ending of the domination of the hearing aid council by the hearing aid industry. It was absolutely absurd that the hearing aid industry should have been able to dominate that council. It has now a voice, but a minority voice, which is right.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

One important aspect that has not been mentioned, apart from the rogue salesmen and the way in which they extort money from people for their unsatisfactory hearing aids, is the complete failure to offer any after-sales servicing. That is an important aspect of the problem that has not been aired enough.

Mr. Ashley

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. In fact, it was raised before the hon. Gentleman came into the Chamber by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes). I am sure that he was very busy elsewhere. I am glad that the point about the failure of after-sales service has been emphasised.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn mentioned his concern about the new balance of the council—four from the trade, four consumers and four medical or technical experts. He expressed the anxiety that there may not he many people qualified for the task and there may he difficulty in finding them. I do not for one moment believe that those doubts and anxieties are justified. I believe that there will be no problem in finding the proper people.

I emphasise again to the Minister that it is important that those he chooses are truly independent. It is important that they are not stooges of the industry. It is important that they are truly independent, with an expertise in and knowledge of deafness or a knowledge of the problems involved. I know that I can trust him to do that. I hope that his successors, too, will take on board the fact that that independence is crucial.

The Bill will be of enormous help to all those people who buy hearing aids privately. As the hon. Member for Ynys Môn has said, that is 20 per cent. of users. I hope that, in future, the admirable advances made by the Bill will be supplemented by improvements in the provision of hearing aids by the National Health Service and that it will have more resources, more choice and better aids. I hope that we can pursue that campaign of helping the National Health Service with the skill and determination that has been shown by hon. Members on all sides of the House in getting the Bill through its various stages.

12.9 pm

Mr. Summerson

As the promoter said, this is a Bill to assist the hard of hearing and especially the elderly hard of hearing. I congratulate him on presenting it. I have some personal interest in this matter because I suffer from tinnitus and deafness in one ear. Even when I speak, I can hear the whining hum in my left ear, which is always with me. It is a matter of concern that, as I grow older, it may, of course, become worse. Although I am not elderly just yet, it is a good thing to look ahead to the time when I will be elderly and perhaps will benefit from the provisions of the Bill.

I had my first brush with a doorstep salesman at the age of about 16, when I foolishly filled in one of those coupons in a newspaper. I was at school at the time and the next thing that happened was that a man arrived in a Ford van, range the bell of my housemaster's house and asked for me. He was sent away with a flea in his ear. I was summoned to the housemaster's study and I, too, was given a flea in my ear. Ever since that tender age, I have been extremely wary about filling in such coupons in case I should find such a man arriving at my front doorstep. I know from my constituents that such visits take place. They find them especially distressing as, in many cases, they cannot understand what the salesman is saying. I am sure that some of those unscrupulous salesmen play on that.

I have already mentioned small advertisements. I believe that they do not appear in the most reputable of newspapers—if any newspaper today can be said to be reputable. The fact that such advertisements are parodied in Private Eye makes one realise how far the level of such advertisements have sunk.

If one was ever confronted with the horrific choice of which of one's senses one could least do without, I am sure that loss of hearing would be considered the worst. I am musical and I know that many great composers, Beethoven and Smetana among them, suffered from deafness. Smetana wrote a string quartet in which the first violin played a long whining note which signified to him the first sounds of tinnitus—the first sign of the onset of deafness.

To be cut off from the world by deafness must be one of the worst possible things, especially for the elderly. Other hon. Members have already said how isolated such people feel. They feel they cannot go out; what is worse, they fear that they may be made fun of. What a terrible thing that must be. A deaf person may have the suspicion that he is being made fun of, but, of course, he cannot make out what is being said: he just has that feeling.

Other hon. Members have covered most of the points that I wanted to raise, but I think that it is a bit strange that the Department of Health is not the responsible Ministry for hearing aids. I am casting no aspersions on my hon. Friend the Minister, but it is rather odd. I know that this matter was raised in Committee, but I do not believe that anything has been done about it. I am sure that the Minister feels that he is on probation, and we look to him for an excellent performance.

Some elderly deaf people manage to make light of their disability by joking at themselves. I have an elderly deaf relative who, some years ago, gave a dinner party. During a lull in the conversation someone turned to her to get the ball rolling again and said, "Isn't it awful all these young men being killed in Vietnam?" Without a second's hesitation she replied, "Yes, but I believe they recover if you water them after dark." She had the great knack of being able to laugh at herself and if people can do that it is a way of getting over their disability. It is okay to do that when one is among friends, but the knock on the door heralding the unfriendly salesman is another matter. His only intention is to make another sale—that is all he is bothered about. He does not care that the ear is one of the most delicate organs. What on earth can a salesman know about whether his particular product is right for any particular person?

I hope that the Bill will be something that can be dropped on the toe of the salesman who has got his foot in the door. I hope that we can drive out those salesmen, to the benefit of the elderly hard of hearing.

12.13 pm
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

As a sponsor of the Bill, I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) not only on promoting the Bill, but on getting it through the House successfully. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a modest measure and obviously our debate has touched on things that are outside the scope of that Bill, but that is not surprising.

The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) should consider that as there is agreement on all sides that abuse by a relatively small number of companies is causing hardship, it would be to the industry's great advantage to have the Bill in place. The Bill will weed out the problem, and if standards are conspicuously improved deaf people will feel more confident to take advantage of the technologies and developments available in the private sector. To that extent, I am surprised that there has been some resistance to a Bill which I believe is highly desirable.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) has just given anecdotal evidence of the type of problems that occur. Many people have become so wary as a result of stories about unscrupulous salespeople that they have prevented themselves from getting useful advice because they do not want to expose themselves to a situation in which advantage could be taken of them. I hope that the Bill will help to reduce that problem to the great advantage of deaf people and of the industry.

In common with other hon. Members I have a particular interest in the deaf as my daughter is profoundly deaf. She is 12 years old and goes to Aberdeen school for the deaf. As a result of that, I have become involved with the National Deaf Children's Society and I am president of its local area branch. Although many of the speeches today have related to people who have gone deaf in later life, I wish to consider those unfortunate enough to be born profoundly deaf and start at a substantial disadvantage which they have to carry through life. The Bill has an important contribution to make to their lives.

As the hon. Member for Walthamstow has said, losing one's hearing is bad enough, but to have no hearing in the first place means that it is extremely difficult to get a basic grasp of language, through which we interact with other human beings. It is extremely difficult to learn the language and if one does not know or cannot hear the language, it is that much harder to speak and to lip read. Thankfully, relatively few people are born profoundly deaf. Such people are socially detached and anything that the House can do at any time to improve their ability to interact with their hearing peers is welcome. The Bill is a step forward.

The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes), whose son is deaf, pointed out that those of us who have deaf children have, in general, nothing but praise for the service that we receive from the NHS, although we may have questions about the technology, which is constantly changing and which is not so good as we would like. There are still problems with moulds that do not fit and the consequent deterioration in the operation of a hearing aid and problems with diagnosing the scale of the problem in an individual.

I accept that it is all very well to suggest that there should be a Hearing Aid Council standard or safeguard to show that a particular hearing aid is approved, but that does not deal with the problem. That hearing aid may not be appropriate. Someone may go to the private sector and contract to buy a hearing aid. There may be nothing wrong with it—it may be perfectly manufactured and of a technically high standard—but it may not be appropriate for that individual. I believe that dispensing is just as important as the technology of the hearing aid. We must ensure that dispensing standards are improved.

At the age of 18 my daughter will no longer be provided for totally by the Health Service. She will have to be prepared to contract for her own hearing aids. We all acknowledge that the private sector is advancing the technology of hearing aids faster than the Health Service on cosmetic grounds, and so on. If one is profoundly deaf one will want to get hold of technology which may be available outside of the Health Service. There must be absolute confidence that people will receive fair, detached and objective advice and the right after-sales service and correction if the complaint is wrongly diagnosed. The Bill makes a contribution towards resolving that problem and will be welcome.

I hope that the House appreciates that while we all know that the Bill is directed at the millions of people who become deaf and that, a small step forward has been made to protect their interests, it is important to acknowledge the smaller number of people who are born profoundly deaf, who have never had the advantage of being able to hear and who should be adequately protected. More could be done by the House, but I very much welcome the Bill.

12.21 pm
Mr. Colvin

I wish to associate myself with the generous and well-deserved words of thanks and praise which have been spoken today, particularly to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) to the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and its president the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), and, finally, to Mr. Laurie Pavitt who initiated the matter. As I have said, it is important in today's debate to put down markers for the other place. I say that in hopeful anticipation of the Bill receiving a successful Third Reading today. I wish to make five points in that connection.

First, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South M r. Porter) complained that the membership of the council was too loaded in favour of consumers with eight members representing consumers and only four representing the hearing aid industry. I should have preferred the council to be weighted even more heavily with five members from deaf organisations, one from a consumer organisation, four medical experts on deafness and four from the hearing aid industry. That would give a better balance of 10 against four with an independent chairman and ensure that people who use deaf aids were properly represented.

Next, my hon. Friend also made the point about the disciplinary committee, which should also be heavily weighted in favour of those who use hearing aids. I should like the number of industry representatives on the disciplinary committee to be restricted to one, with two representatives from deaf organisations, one from a consumer organisation and an independent chairman. That would ensure that the members of the council who represented hearing aid users had a majority on the disciplinary committee of five members. That is important.

The other place might also consider adding to the Bill a provision to give the council general powers to appoint additional committees. At the moment, the only committee that exists is the disciplinary committee. Under the Opticians Act 1958, opticians have a general power to appoint any committees they wish, and there is already an education committee and a companies committee. Such committees could have autonomy and could be directly responsible, not necessarily to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but perhaps to the Secretary of State for Health. That could be immensely valuable.

Another factor omitted from the Bill, no doubt by an oversight, is that there was no provision in the 1968 Act to require the council to produce an annual report. The other place should consider an amendment to compel the council to show each year how effectively and actively it has protected the interests of hearing aid consumers. The provision should require the council to state the number of occasions on which the disciplinary committee has been convened. On past experience, according to the RNID, it has been convened in 11 of the 20 years since the council was established, which is not very many.

Finally there should be an obligation on the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a report on the overall effectiveness of the council in protecting the interests of hearing aid users, on the availability of hearing aids to the public and on the potential for transferring adult hearing aid services from hospitals to health services or group practices and dispensing hearing aids by a community dispenser, which is what the RNID proposes in its document, "Hearing Aids: The Case For Change."

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn on bringing forward the Bill. I hope that it will have a fair passage in the other place, to the eternal help of the 3.9 million deaf people in this country.

12.27 pm
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

This is an important measure and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones), both on his luck in the ballot for private Members' Bills and his choice of Bill. Few people win a high enough place in the ballot to legislate so soon after entering the House and the hon. Member has used his good fortune to excellent purpose. I congratulate him also on the content and manner of his presentation of the Bill. Both upstairs in Committee on 5 April and here on the Floor of the House today he has made the case for his Bill with eloquence and obvious sincerity.

At the same time, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), I recall today the pioneering work of our former parliamentary colleague Laurie Pavitt in piloting the parent Act—the Hearing Aid Council Act—to the statute book in 1968. His work for hearing-impaired people will long be remembered, on both sides of both Houses of Parliament, with respect and appreciation. Speaking for the Opposition, I most warmly welcome this strengthening of his legislation and, from this Front Bench, pledge our full support for the early translation of the Bill into law.

The Bill's main purpose, by amending and strengthening the Hearing Aid Council Act, is to protect some of the most vulnerable among Britain's 3.9 million adults—including one in every two people over the age of 70—with a hearing loss serious enough to warrant the use of a hearing aid. The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys undertook a definitive survey on the prevalence of disability, commissioned by the Government and published last September, showing that hearing impairment is the second most common disability in Britain today. Successful fitting and use of hearing aids reduces and can remove this disability, which is why the provision of the right aid at the right time is so important to so many people.

The National Health Service is, of course, the main provider of hearing aids but, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn said, some 20 per cent. of all aids dispensed in this country are bought privately. They are often bought by elderly people who have been subjected to utterly disreputable sales techniques. There are cases of people spending as much as £2,000 on useless aids.

Let me give the House one example of the abuse with which this Bill is intended to deal. I give the example because it illustrates so well the importance of the Bill and has been so fully and clearly documented. It concerns an elderly woman living alone whose hearing deteriorated to the point at which she felt unable to mix with other people. Her doctor arranged an appointment with a specialist at Hull royal infirmary, where she was told that she would have to wait 15 months for an NHS hearing aid. She writes: In sheer desperation I decided to go to Amplivox-Ultratone for a hearing test. I was told they had a hearing aid costing £375 to suit my particular kind of deafness and that it would be ready in a week. I had been widowed six months and was going on holiday to try to cheer myself up, so I thought that if it took all my savings I must have one. She had to take the hearing aid back as it was of no help whatever to her and was then told that she needed two hearing aids. Her letter goes on: I said I had no more money and was then told that I could have a second aid, with wires round my neck and into my right ear, at a cost of another £100. This elderly widow then went back to her GP, who arranged a further NHS appointment with a specialist for her. The specialist made it quite clear that she had been grossly misled and exploited by the private dispenser. She then took her case to the small claims court and eventually had her money returned to her, plus costs. The case was virtually undefended and her letter concludes: If I had not had to wait 15 months for an NHS aid, I would have been spared all this worry and distress. This case sets in bold relief the compelling need for this Bill. As was pointed out at the Committee stage by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, the accounts of hearing aid companies show them to be highly profitable. In the year ending May 1987, for example, Ultratone Limited had an annual turnover of £11.5 million, with net profits after tax of more than £500,000. So as an example of the strong exploiting the weak, the Hull case takes some beating. The case also strongly emphasises the way in which long delays in providing aids under the National Health Service pile handicap on handicap for people whose disability may be unseen but is nevertheless a daunting burden to bear.

Ministers do not, of course, talk freely about contract prices for purchases by the NHS. But as the Minister who announced and carried into effect the replacement of the old body-worn NHS hearing aid by the behind-the-ear model, I must take the opportunity of this debate to say that some of the private sector's prices for hearing aids, which are certainly no better than the NHS aid, are totally outrageous. They are not just an affront to human decency but a serious crime against disabled people who, in some cases among the more elderly, go to the private sector for fear that they may die in the queue for NHS provision.

My decision, as the then Minister for the Disabled, to phase out the body-worn aid formerly issued by the NHS, was taken in the mid-1970s. It was seen by the hearing impaired as a major advance. The new aid was cosmetically very much better than its predecessor and cosmetics can be very important to disabled people: ask those, for example, who use wheelchairs about the importance of having some chrome. But the change that I carried through from the old body-worn hearing aid was a very long time ago. What are the present Government prepared to do, nearly 15 years on, to carry that reform further? Has the Minister any statement to make about this today?

In his handling of this Bill, the Under-Secretary seems to have almost ruined his reputation as a would-be parliamentary tough guy: the Humphrey Bogart, as it were, of the House of Commons. Some of his interventions in Standing Committee read more like Sir Humphrey than "Bogie". He has clearly been helpful in regard to this Bill, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn has acknowledged, both on and behind the scenes. He has won praise for being frank and fair in debate on a Bill which is rightly interventionist in its approach to tackling abuse in the private sector, and also more regulatory in its effects.

This House is often at its best when discussing the problems and needs of people with disabilities. Yet all of us must regard it as unfortunate that, once again, it has taken a private Member's Bill to achieve much needed help for disabled people. It is simply not good enough that legislative progress in a field of such importance has to rely, time and time again, on the luck and dedication of Back Benchers in this House. The Government have a responsibility to match their rhetoric about the needs of disabled people with more legislation of their own, especially when effective protection of vulnerable consumers is the issue.

The Government also have a clear duty to improve NHS provision at a time when the Chancellor is awash with public funds. In a recent Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), the Minister, in reply, spoke of a review that the Department of Health has been undertaking in this field. He said: In the coming months we must work on a sensible set of reforms, which commend themselves to all those who work in the Health Service and, above all, meet patient needs."—[Official Report, 23 March 1989; Vol. 149, c. 1303.] Is there anything more the Under-Secretary can say about that review today? He must know that there is cause for concern when so many patients feel driven to the private sector and when there is the depth of exploitation which I and other right hon. and hon. Members have exemplified to the House? Has he read Dinah Hall's interview with Lord Snowdon in The Times of 16 February 1989? That interview reflects anger with the treatment of disabled people by unscrupulous high-pressure salesmen. Lord Snowdon, than whom no one has done more to help the victims of their techniques, said in the interview: I have no objection to companies making profits on something that is not needed—luxuries for able-bodied people. But when it's cashing in on people with disabilities… Has the Under-Secretary seen the reply I had last Friday from the Minister for Health about the training of hearing therapists and the development of standards-based vocational qualifications? He presumably knows that proposals have been made to the Care Sector Consortium and the Training Agency on which the British Society of Hearing Therapists has been invited to comment? The reply was one of particular interest to the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and the British Association of the Hard of Hearing and it will be helpful to the RNID, to BAHOH and to the House if there is anything the Under-Secretary can add to it in this debate. I shall be grateful for any further information we can have —I assume that the Minister has had some consultation with the Department of Health—about the Government's intentions in regard to improvements in provision for the vast majority of hearing-impaired people who have to rely on the NHS for help.

The Hearing Aid Council is poorly equipped to discipline dispensers. Thus its record of disciplinary action is also poor. As the House has heard, the council's disciplinary committee has met just five times since 1976 and, in 12 years, struck off only one dispenser. Again as the House knows, in the 21 years of its existence the committee has met only 12 times and has struck off only seven dispensers. This contrasts with the thousands of complaints sent to right hon. and hon. Members, not least to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn since he announced his intention of introducing the Bill. They are almost all about gross overcharging of mainly elderly disabled people and the now wholly inadequate means of redress. The Act is not working and is much strengthened by this important Bill which, not before time, will improve the ability of the Hearing Aid Council to discipline the dispensers who are guilty of abuse.

In Committee the hon. Member for Ynys Môn said that there were some outstanding points of difficulty about the Government's approach to the Bill …where we remain on opposite banks of the river".—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 April 1989; c.30.] I hope very much that, when this Bill reaches the statute book, with any improvements that the House of Lords may be able to suggest, we shall all, on both sides of Parliament, Front Bench and Back Bench alike, find ourselves on the same river bank, out of respect for the very wide range of organisations that support the Bill and for that part of the private sector that welcomes the protection the Bill offers to elderly and disabled people. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn. I thank the Minister, as the hon. Member did, for his helpfulness in Committee and pledge again total support from these Benches for the speedy passage and quick implementation of this Bill.

12.40 pm
Mr. Forth

I shall again be brief, not only because today truly belongs to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones), whose Bill this is, but also because I sense that the House is anxious to get to the next item of business. Quite rightly, everybody has expressed the extent to which hon. Members and people with hearing impediments are indebted to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn for what he has been able to do. It is not often that a private Member's Bill can achieve what has been achieved. I sincerely hope that the House will shortly agree to give the Bill a Third Reading. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn can rightly feel pleased about what he has achieved.

I thank the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for his kind words about me and I link those thanks with thanks to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). I doubt whether my career will survive in view of what has been said about me in the debate, but I shall do my best to make sure that, where appropriate, we continue to use measures such as this to give protection or encouragement to those who need it. That is not inconsistent with adopting a robust attitude to those who are well able to look after themselves. That might go some way towards explaining the paradox that has puzzled many hon. Members during the debate.

The Bill does many important things and we have highlighted two of them. One is the matter of penalties. We think that we have put in place a workable series of penalties that will go a long way towards giving the council effective powers to deal with appropriate matters.

On the question of composition, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) made a helpful and positive contribution. He has knowledge of and interest in this matter, and rightly expressed concern on behalf of the industry and the dispensers about the nature of the new composition that the Bill will bring to the council. May I seek to reassure my hon. Friend by saying that we shall now have to find a way of having a membership of the council that reflects the nature of the industry? We shall do everything that we can to ensure representation from users of private sector products. I accept his comment that it is right that that should be so, and we shall try to do it when requesting nominations for membership of the council and by looking carefully at such nominations. The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South also spoke about that matter, and I hope that we shall be able to meet his requirements.

There is concern about funding which I well understand. At no point does the Bill set out to alter the basis of funding; it does not seek to be the vehicle to do that. I understand the concerns of the industry, but perhaps the House will be reassured to know that the main costs incurred by the council are in disciplinary proceedings. We amended the Bill to provide that the amounts levied by fines should go to the council and therefore in large measure offset any costs that may he incurred. We hope that that will also meet any additional costs that may be incurred through additional proceedings of the kind envisaged by many hon. Members.

We have gone some way towards providing a compensatory factor, if I may put it that way. I remind the House that the Secretary of State has to agree the annual fees levied by the council. Therefore, there is a safety valve, and if things ever threaten to get out of hand or to be dealt with irresponsibly—although I do not envisage that—there is a safety net. I hope that that reassures the industry and the dispensers. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South for his positive attitude and hope that he will pass my comments to the dispensers so that from now on everyone will be able to make the council a more effective and more workable body.

The House can be pleased with the work it has done this morning. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn must be delighted. I ask the House to give the Bill a resounding Third Reading and send it well on its way to the other place so that it may reach the statute book as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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