§ 6. Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)
If he will make a statement on the availability of digital hearing aids through the NHS. 
§ 16. Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
What are his Department's plans for the funding of digital hearing aids during 2002–03. 
§ The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith)
National health service trusts may provide digital hearing aids for patients if clinically appropriate. Digital hearing aids are being provided by 20 NHS trusts in the modernising NHS hearing aid services project. Further decisions on digital hearing aid provision will be made in the light of the research evaluation of the project.
§ Mr. Hendry
I am grateful to the Minister, but is she aware that millions of people with hearing difficulties will consider that reply to be deeply inadequate and wholly complacent? Is not it unacceptable that, in the 21st century, hearing aids in the United Kingdom continue to be based on outdated 1970s technology, whereas digital hearing aids are increasingly common in other parts of the world? Is not it time for the Government to stop posturing, push ahead faster with the trials and, particularly in the coming year, allocate the funds that are desperately needed to tackle the problem?
§ Jacqui Smith
I am willing to take a lesson on posturing from Conservative Members, if necessary. The Government have invested practically in the whole process, which is necessary not just to give people digital hearing aids, but to provide them in a modernised fashion in the health service. In the pilot areas, people are being assessed in terms of their needs. They are fitted with digital hearing aids, which also involves the necessity for computer programming and skilled input, and then assessed to ensure that the hearing aids are appropriate.
704 I hope that everybody in the Chamber believes that we have a responsibility in the NHS to provide not only the equipment, but the process, the support and the skilled staff to ensure that that is done effectively. That is why we are using the pilot phases to ensure that we can roll out modernised hearing aid services provision across the NHS in a way that benefits patients to the maximum.
§ Mr. Foster
The Minister will be aware that the audiology unit at Bath's Royal United hospital is one of the first-wave pilot schemes. Will she give it an absolute assurance that it will receive continued funding for the scheme from April next year? When, precisely, will that announcement be made? Is she aware that, even in the first-wave project areas, there is a difficulty in that some patients are given the new digital hearing aids and others the old aids?
There is a solution to that problem. Will the Minister at least agree that it is inappropriate in pilot areas such as west Dorset for audiologists to be advised:It is also very helpful if you can downplay the benefits of digital versus standard NHS hearing aids."?Will she join me in deprecating that advice?
§ Jacqui Smith
I can say that, in the near future and subject to evaluation, we will make statements on the roll out of digital hearing aids and their continued provision in areas where that is clearly successful. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to ensure that we have strong evidence about the effectiveness of digital hearing aids so that, across the NHS, we provide not only the technology but the most appropriate procedure for patients. That will ensure that situations such as the one to which he referred no longer exist.
§ Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)
As the user of a hearing aid due to industrial deafness, may I point out to my hon. Friend that the current NHS hearing aids give people all the noises that they do not want to hear and make it difficult to hear those who are talking? Something must be done to ensure that deaf people can hear when people are speaking to them.
§ Jacqui Smith
I am not quite sure what sounds my hon. Friend does not want to hear in Chamber!
Part of our evaluation of the success of digital hearing aids will refer to the modernisation of the whole process—fitting, assessing and follow-up. That is why it is important both to evaluate technical success and to ensure that we can put in place the processes that will enable digital hearing aids to be fitted as part of the service that we expect for NHS patients.
§ Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)
May I tell the Minister about the excellent work done by audiology staff at Fairfield general hospital in my constituency? The issue that concerns them, in addition to the supply of digital hearing aids, is the screening of young babies for deafness. Does she have any plans to introduce pilot schemes for that kind of screening, which will bring enormous advantages to children in my constituency?
§ Jacqui Smith
My hon. Friend is right: the early screening of babies enables problems to be identified and better joint working to be undertaken. That is why 705 screening the hearing of the newborn, which is done before they are discharged from hospital, or as soon as possible thereafter, is being piloted by 22 health authorities during 2001–02. Over the next three to four years, we intend to implement the scheme progressively across the NHS in England using the lessons that have been learned. It is important to recognise, however, that the programme involves screening rather than provision. We must therefore also ensure that we facilitate and improve joint working between the NHS, the education service and social services so that those children who are identified as having hearing difficulties are followed up and cared for. They will be identified earlier through the screening process, and we then have a responsibility to ensure that they get the treatment that they deserve from all those agencies.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
The Minister can be thankful that she does not understand about shutting out unwanted noises from hearing aids. I have benefited from a digital hearing aid, and I trust that the NHS experiment will start to be applied faster than at present. If the Minister is not prepared to take lessons from the previous Government's experience of postcode rationing, I fear that certain areas will not benefit from the digital roll out.
§ Jacqui Smith
On the speed of delivery, the modernised hearing aids services project was announced a little over a year ago by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. Twenty NHS trusts now routinely fit digital hearing aids. It is from that experience that I shall take lessons, and make sure that we roll out the programme in the most effective way. By the end of October, 13,278 digital hearing aids had been fitted and 16,178 people had been assessed. By the end of March, we expect that more than 18,000 people will have digital hearing aids on the NHS for the first time.
§ Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
Last week, in a speech characterised by such soundbites as "The modernised patient journey" andThe patient, not the hearing aid, is at the heart of the fitting process"—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 7 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 132WH.]—well, that is a relief—the Minister claimed credit, as she has again, for the 13,270 digital hearing aids fitted by the 20 first-wave trusts. Now, there is widespread confusion about the Government's commitment to continue funding that first wave with up to £25 million by or in 2003–04, let alone to roll out provision across the whole country. When will the Government finally acknowledge what we all know—that digital hearing aids work and clearly bring enormous benefits to people with hearing difficulties—and give a proper commitment to provide them across the country as soon as possible to the 2 million people who would benefit from them?
§ Jacqui Smith
Conservative Members are high on commitments and a bit low on the practical details of how to meet them. My concern as a Minister is to ensure that patients receive not only the hearing aid, but the necessary assessment and fitting, conducted by a skilled work force. That is what patients of the NHS deserve. That is why we 706 will evaluate the results of the pilots that we set up. We will announce how we will roll out the programme in the near future.
§ John Cryer (Hornchurch)
I appreciate what my hon. Friend says, but is she aware that there is a queue a mile long in my constituency for digital hearing aids because of their technological advantages over traditional ones, and that on 6 June last year my right hon. Friend the Minister of State made the plea that that technology be introduced into the NHS as quickly as possible? Can we introduce it more rapidly?
§ Jacqui Smith
We want that technology to be introduced into the NHS as quickly as possible, but in a manner that provides support for patients, assesses them properly and ensures that the necessary computer and related equipment is available and that skilled staff are available to give the sort of service that people expect from the NHS. That is why it is right that we get it right. I assure hon. Members that we will look carefully at the results of the evaluation of our pilots so that we can use that information to roll out the benefits of technology across the NHS as quickly and effectively as we can.