HL Deb 07 July 1954 vol 188 cc488-97

4.5 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, we now come back to the discussion introduced by my noble friend Lord Milner of Leeds. We are all grateful to him for having given us the opportunity of discussing the Report which my noble friend behind me will not mind my calling the Crook Report. We all share a feeling of thankfulness to the noble Chairman of that Committee, and we are pleased to see the large amount of unanimity which has been achieved in the presentation of the Report. For my part, I do not change very much in the views I have held for the last thirty years: that whilst I am entirely in favour of getting the finest education and academic training possible, and whilst I am in favour of improving in the highest degree the professional services to the general users of such services, I have an inherent objection, and have had for years, to what I call the setting up of closed corporations. I always remember the words of Robert Waldo Emerson, who said: Whoso would be a man, must be a Nonconformist. In many of these things for setting up closed corporations I am very much of the Nonconformist. However, the general idea of raising the standards is excellent.

No one could listen without being moved by the last speech we heard, from my noble friend, Lord Kenswood, whose academic experience and whose own magnificent triumph over his physical difficulties have always brought him the highest respect in this House. His personal experience of the tragedy of not receiving the right advice or treatment required in time is, of course, an exceedingly powerful factor to be brought to bear upon those who are forming opinions on the Report before us to-day. Having said that, I would say that in my working lifetime I have always spoken for one of those bodies which are referred to in a considerable section of the Report as corporate bodies—namely, companies or societies incorporated for ordinary business purposes. Judging from this Report, it is apparently considered undesirable, in view of certain precedents which have been created, that any new approval should be given to the registration of bodies carrying out optical and dispensing work unless they have a majority of qualified opticians or ophthalmic people upon their board of directors.

I think that is a most amazing situation. It is true that it has been tried in certain other respects. It was brought into effect under the control of the Dental Board. But, of course, anybody who knows how that has been worked, knows that you can drive a coach and six through it at any time. You set up a little separate organisation and put three dentists or three opticians on it, and then they carry on the work with the corporate bodies. That really is nonsense from the ordinary business point of view. But when we come to the position, say, of a co-operative society—now representing about 11 million shareholding members in the country—who have their own proper standards and constitutional rules for the election of their management, it is, in my view, quite improper to say that they cannot carry on with their running of efficient optical advice, prescription and treatment because the democratically-elected members of the board are not all, or in a majority, qualified people.

It reminds me of some of the attacks that are made from time to time upon trade unions and trade union practices. I must say, however, that in my experience of what goes on, stage by stage, these exclusive professional bodies are the most powerful and independent trade unions in the whole country. It is so with the medical profession, it is so with the legal profession; it is so now in the dental profession—and, of course, the opticians want to be the same. There is a whole list of other people who are coming on. Even the undertakers, who dispose of our remains at the end of our lives, are now seeking incorporation, with special qualifications, and the like, coming into consideration. I suppose the next will be the butchers and the slaughterers of animals for our food—


And hairdressers.


My noble friend reminds me that we shall soon have hairdressers applying for registration in the same kind of way. It is an extraordinary situation. Whilst there are many things in this Report, especially with regard to education and training, which I think are admirable, I object strongly to the kind of provision I have mentioned being foreshadowed in the Report. When the Government come to make their decision, I am sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, for example, who has far greater experience in one branch of corporate work than I have, will not be short of advice from the people concerned. He needs to go only to Selfridge's, to John Barker's, or to any of those people to see for himself what a corporate body can do in the way of providing optical treatment and similar services. I would oppose most strongly the idea that it is only the individual optician who can give the best and the highest professional service. I say that in many of the cases the services provided by the corporate bodies are not only as good as, but better than, and are better furnished and provided than, those of the individual, because of the additional capital behind the concern.

If one goes to John Barker's, Selfridge's or to the Leeds Co-operative Society—I could name many others—and has a look at the provision made for the actual professional service rendered, there can be no possible case, when this Report comes to be implemented, for saying that it is fundamental that there must be a majority of professionally qualified opticians upon the board of directors. I hope we are not going to perpetrate in legislation any more such nonsense as that. It is certainly something which could never he justified in the case of great democratic bodies like the cooperative societies, who claim the right to elect their own people. They have no reason to cheat themselves, because they are setting up a service for themselves, both from the point of view of personal health and from the point of view of personal economy. I hope due notice will be taken of that point of view.

There is one other matter which has been referred to this afternoon and which interests me very much: that is, the proposed separation of optical treatment, keeping it apart from other business. Why should it be? If there is a man practising in one of the scattered districts of Northern Scotland, who is a qualified optician and who also keeps an establishment, not only for selling his spectacles but also for selling cameras or doing repairs to lenses in cameras, as he would repair lenses in a pair of spectacles, why should he not carry on thus? I know well that in many districts, if it were not for the movement with which I am concerned, with its organisation and its men, it would be almost impossible to get the service to outlying places. Proper equipment and proper provisions are taken into all those places.


I am wondering whether the noble Viscount would be perfectly satisfied at receiving medical treatment from a tobacconist who spent 85 per cent. of his time selling tobacco.


I think that such an interruption from my noble friend is irrelevant.



It is very irrelevant. I said that if a man is a properly qualified optician or ophthalmic adviser, why should he not also deal in photography if he wishes to? I thought we had a little more freedom in this country than that. A few people get together and say: "No, you keep outside, because you are going to do some other business as well as that of an optician. 'We are God's chosen few All others will be damned. There is no room in heaven for you We can't have heaven crammed.' We know that attitude of mind very well indeed. I have much more sympathy with the view of my noble friend Lord Kenswood, about the need for training more qualified people to deal powerfully with the situation. I hope, however, that it will not be said that we shall have to wait until every one of the additional entrants we want in the profession has had a kind of university career or a high level career in the academic sphere. I have seen in the engineering profession, in the accountancy profession and in other professions, some of which have become corporations, the most remarkable results obtained from giving freedom of opportunity to all classes of the community, including the working classes, provided they get their technical qualifications on top of their practical work and experience, even if they have to do it through evening classes and the like.

When I listened to the various speeches that have been made this afternoon, I felt a little anxious lest we should be paying far too much attention to purely paper academic qualifications and not giving the proper opportunity to the boy or girl who goes into the business at an early age, perhaps as soon as he has obtained his General Certificate of Education. He should then be able to get the beginning of his practical training and go on for his higher educational training in the technical sense. I hope we shall not pay too much attention to purely academic qualifications, because I want to see more people technically qualified on the lines that my noble friend who last spoke mentioned this afternoon.

I do not think I need take up more of your Lordships' time. I shall, if necessary, reserve detailed criticism of some of the proposals for the occasion when they are included in a Bill and submitted to Parliament. But, generally speaking, I would say I am in favour of anything which comes out of the Report and which will lead to a higher standard of qualification and of commercial practice. But I will oppose, and oppose rigidly, any proposal which seeks to set up a closed corporation and unreasonably refuses proper admission to those who are qualified for the service of the public.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland, whose views I am representing this afternoon, wish me to assure your Lordships, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, how greatly they appreciate the fact that this debate has taken place. I have listened to it, with just a modicum of support from this side of the House, with very great pleasure. It has been one of the characteristic debates in your Lordships' House. I know of no subject on which anyone dare embark in this House without expecting to find expert knowledge confronting him. The noble Lord, Lord Charnwood, gave us quite exceptional expert knowledge, and we were all particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kenswood, who assured us that his expert knowledge was nil; it was the one point on which the noble Lord did not carry any conviction with the House. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Alexander of Hillsborough for having livened up the debate. I did not understand why it was that none of the medical profession got up and dealt with him. They seemed, I thought, to be singularly calm under the lash that he used on them, but probably they too are waiting for a subsequent opportunity.

We are all, in this House and in the Government, most grateful to the noble Lord. Lord Crook, whose Committee has produced this valuable Report. He embarked upon the Chairmanship of a Committee composed of representatives of people who, historically, were warring factions; and by his own skill and tact as a Chairman he has produced unanimity. As a City Company man I was most interested in Lord Milner of Leeds' rush back to the "good old days" of Charles I, when, to a high degree, we had control, inspection and training in many of our industries, and no general councils other than the City Company, were required for dealing with offenders. And if there was any failure, or any rude behaviour of the apprentices to their masters, ethical standards were maintained quite definitely, quickly and rigorously—the punishment being that the apprentice was stripped to the waist and duly chastised. I gather that the noble Lord would not suggest that there should be an immediate revival of that particular type of treatment in order to deal with this particular trade or profession.

I thought the noble Lord gave us a most interesting account of the various Committees that have considered this subject. It rather alarms me sometimes to hear of the long periods for which Committees, consisting of all sorts of people, sit on these problems, produce Reports; then, when they have been duly considered and forgotten, another Committee is appointed, with the advanced knowledge of the times, to go through the same process. I think the noble Lord, Lord Crook, looking well, as I am glad to see he does, may have reasonable hopes for the views that he expressed—that perhaps in his lifetime there may be some form of legislation as a result of the work that he has done. When the Committee were appointed, thereby reflecting the views of the Government of the day, they embarked on their task with terms of reference which assumed that there would be registration. That was the basis on which they proceeded to work and, so far as I can see, all the evidence that they collected supported that view.

May I repeat two things which the noble Lord said? One was to express the gratitude of the Government of the day, whichever day it may be and whichever Government it may be, to the people who are good enough to give up their time and skill to serve on committees of this nature. The present Government are most grateful to the members of this Committee who had the privilege of serving under the noble Lord, and I should like to join in the testimony that has been paid to them. The other thing that I liked so much about what the noble Lord said was the tribute that he paid to the profession, or trade (whatever it may be), at the present time. We really do not get any further by assuming that there are a large number of rapscallions engaged in widespead trade in this country, and I was glad to hear the noble Lord say what he did. If there are some who require just a little guidance and correction, then that is the proper business of legislation. But what this Report is trying to do, and what I think probably those engaged in it to the extent of some 95 or more per cent. want, is that this trade shall become a profession, with ethical standards of conduct, with a Council to govern it—a Council with quite clear definitions of its functions and having disciplinary powers.

Reverting, to what the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, said, the Committee propose that the ophthalmic opticians who test sight and dispense glasses should be registered, but that subsequently the register should be closed. Maybe. But this Council is going to have considerable powers. We, as a legislative assembly have to be careful about this matter. The purpose of such a Council—as indeed the purpose of any professional register—must be to protect the public. It is not primarily, but only incidentally, for the purpose of enhancing the status of a number of people, however desirable it may be that that status should be enhanced; and Parliament has always been disinclined to intefere with those already earning their living in any trade or profession, except in so far as it may be necessary to do so in the interests of the public. It may therefore be expected, that in any proposal brought forward there would be the minimum of disturbance to the present people in the method of carrying out optical work.

I was interested in, and felt myself very much in accord with, the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Kenswood, about treatment; but matters in regard to which technical and professional considerations arise are normally left to be settled by a professional governing body, although they are always subject (I think this is the provision that the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough had in mind) to the subsequent control of some body such as the Privy Council. On the stalwart plea of the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, for the corporate bodies, I wonder if I may be sufficiently personal to say that he and I have had much the same experience in our lives, so perhaps your Lordships will understand that we have a considerable amount of respect for the jobs that we have done in the past and are not, therefore, inclined to condemn corporate bodies. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Crook, would not want to condemn corporate bodies in general.

The noble Lord, Lord Crook, has pointed in his Report to a danger. It is for those who are concerned with subsequent action to take those views into account, and to see what should be done. I was obliged to the noble Lord for saying, modestly, that he did not expect us to agree with everything that the Report says. Very rarely does it happen that a Government finds itself able to put into legislation everything that a Report says; indeed, it is so often so much easier to define noble and general principles than it is to define the precise terms of legislation. But I can assure the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, that the Government are taking the greatest interest in this subject.

My right honourable friend the Minister of Health, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Crook, knows, has already had considerable conversations, and they are still proceeding. Perhaps (if I may use the vernacular) when they "get down to brass tacks" they find there has not always been quite so much unanimity as there was in the noble Lord's Report. But they are arriving now, I am told, at a very good understanding. The interested bodies are meeting the Ministers with harmony, and I hope that I shall satisfy your Lordships, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, when I say that the Government certainly have legislation in mind. I will not say when, for no other reason than that legislation of this nature has, of course, to find its place, as noble Lords opposite know so well, in the legislative programme of the Government. But I can assure your Lordships' House of the interest that those in the Government have in this subject and of our general sympathy for it; and, as I have said, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, for having introduced this debate.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to all those noble Lords who have taken part in this very useful debate for the generous support they have given to the Motion which I had the honour to submit. I hardly know what to say to my noble friend Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, on his main point regarding co-operative societies and similar bodies, but it seems to me that that is rather a matter of detail. He has himself suggested one very obvious solution—to a lawyer, at any rate—and I have no doubt that there are numerous other solutions which could be suggested I feel confident that that matter would receive attention in any legislation that any Government thought fit to bring forward. I was a little sorry to hear his remarks about corporate bodies, which include one for lawyers. He appeared to think that such bodies as the Law Society and the General Medical Council, and others, were formed for the protection of members of those bodies. That is not so at all. They, like the proposed Optical Council, are formed for the protection of the consumer, which is much more important. My noble friend, with whom I am on the best terms, will, I hope, bear that in mind.


Sometimes it works both ways.


Sometimes it works both ways. I am greatly obliged to the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton. This Report, I would remind the noble Viscount, has lain on the Table since April, 1952. It is now July, 1954, and having regard to what I hope may be its non-controversial character, I am certain that all noble Lords in this House and, I imagine, a great majority of the Members of another place would be grateful if such a measure as this, which would be useful and not troublesome, could be given attention at a very early date. I thank your Lordships for the reception you have given me, and beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.