HL Deb 12 May 1958 vol 209 cc167-79

3.2 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I am pleased to move the Second Reading of this Bill which, I hope and believe, will serve a very useful purpose. It was piloted successfully through another place by Mr. Ronald Russell and was there supported on all sides. During its passage it was considerably amended, and I will mention later one or two of those Amendments which I believe were important. The object of the Bill is to provide recognised status for opticians by providing for their registration, to promote a high standard of professional education and conduct among opticians and, by doing so, to protect the public against untrained persons posing as opticians.

Not all of your Lordships may know that anybody can call himself an optician, test eyes, prescribe or make spectacles, and that there is nothing that the law can do against anyone who does so. There have been numerous cases of this happening and especially of such people going round calling from door to door. I have here a great number of newspaper cuttings dealing with this matter, and though I do not propose to weary your Lordships with many of them, there are just one or two to which I should like to refer. Here is one from the Star for Friday, November 15, 1957: ' Quacks ' dupe housewives. They ask fancy price for spectacles. Doorstep quacks are duping housewives into buying spectacles for much more than they are worth. A leading Chester ophthalmic optician told the Star: 'Several women have come into my shop saying they have paid seven or eight guineas for glasses. The spectacles have not been worth a fraction of that amount. It is just plain fraud, nothing else. I have been amazed at some of the rubbish these people have been turning out. It is time somebody did something about it'. Here is one other quotation, rather older, from the Daily Dispatch, dated October, 1954: Spec spivs sell old folk £7 trash. An old couple in South Riding who paid £7 each for spectacles which were so bad that they could not wear them were only two victims of bogus eye specialists who are touring the Castleford and Pontefract districts. There are a great many other reports, with which I will not weary your Lordships this afternoon. And, as I have said, in posing as opticians these people at the moment commit no offence. There is one other practice which I believe this Bill may stop. There are certain stores where people can go and test their own eyes and buy spectacles. It is felt that that is a dangerous practice which should be stopped; and this Bill tries to do that.

Although spectacles have been worn since the thirteenth century and the first Charter to the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was given in 1629, it is only during the last sixty years that various examining bodies and protective organisations for controlling the optical profession have come into being. The first was the British Optical Association, established in 1895; and the first Bill introduced in Parliament to bring in registration for opticians was the Optical Practitioners' Registration Bill, which was brought in in 1927. But at that time, I am afraid, it did not get a Second Reading.

In 1949 an Inter-departmental Committee was set up, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Crook, composed of ophthalmic and dispensing opticians and members of the medical profession. Its task was to advise on a system of registration for opticians, on the assumption that this was in the national interest. The Committee reported unanimously in 1952 that it was. As the noble Lord, Lord Crook, is here and is to speak, I shall not say very much about that Report. Since then, there have been various discussions between the Ministry and the profession, and I believe the position at the moment is that the profession have gone as far as they can, without legislation, to put their own house in order. This Bill follows very closely the recommendations of the Crook Report. I shall not go into it in any great detail but will merely make one or two observations on some of its clauses.

Clause 1 sets up a General Optical Council with the object of promoting high standards of professional education and conduct. The composition of that Council is set out in the Schedule. I will not go through that in any detail, because it follows the recommendations of the Crook Committee's Report, except that it provides for three additional members—making twenty-four in all—whereas the Report recommended that the Council should consist of twenty-one members. One extra has been added for education; there is one extra medical representative, and a further member to be appointed by the Governor of Northern Ireland. When the Crook Committee considered this matter they were not considering the inclusion of Northern Ireland.

Clause 2 imposes on the General Optical Council a duty to establish three registers: two of ophthalmic opticians and one of dispensing opticians. The first register will comprise those who merely test sight; the second register those who test sight and dispense glasses, while the third register will be of dispensing opticians. This follows the recommendation made by the Report of the Crook Committee, but was not in the Bill as it was first introduced into another place. The Committee recommended that the General Optical Council should have the power to close one of these lists, because they felt that the people who both tested eyes and dispensed would gradually drop out, and that people would be either ophthalmic opticians or dispensing opticians. It was felt that this would not take place for a long time, and, obviously, if a list was closed too soon it would create hardship. It was felt that if any of these lists was to be closed it should be done by Act of Parliament.

Clause 3 deals with the qualifications for registration. I do not think I need go into that. Clause 4 deals with registration of firms. There are to be two lists: one, again, of firms who are ophthalmic opticians and one of those who are dispensing opticians. I think I am right in saying that the Crook Report foresaw that those firms of ophthalmic opticians who were already in existence would continue, but that there would be no new firms, or there should not be new firms, coming in, although there would continue to be firms of dispensing opticians. In this Bill we do not try to prevent new firms from being set up, provided that they comply with various provisions of the Bill—for instance, that a majority of directors are opticians, or, in the case of a firm which deals mainly in other things and has just one department dealing with optical business, that that department is under the management of a qualified optician.

Clause 5 gives the General Optical Council power to authorise training institutions and to approve qualifications and to publish lists; and there are various forms of appeal. Clause 6 merely gives the power to inspect those institutions and to inspect examinations. Clauses 7 and 8 deal purely with the machinery of publishing the lists. Clauses 9 to 16 are disciplinary clauses, and they follow very closely the procedure laid down in the Medical Act, 1956, and the Dentists Act, 1957. I do not propose to deal in any detail with these clauses, but if any questions of detail are raised I will try to answer them at the end of the debate. Clauses 17 and 18 allow the General Optical Council to set up an education committee and a committee to deal with the special problems of firms. Clause 19 merely allows them to set up any other committees, provided that two-thirds of the members are members of the Council.

Clause 20 is important. It was introduced in another place and makes it an offence, punishable summarily with a fine of £100, and on indictment with a fine of £250, for anybody who is unqualified to test anybody else's sight. The testing of sight is defined later in the Bill as: Testing with a view to correcting any defects of vision by spectacles. It would not stop, say, a nurse testing the sight of children at school to ascertain whether they should go to an optician or to an oculist; or, in a business, the testing of a person's sight to ascertain whether he was suitable to do a certain job. It prohibits only the testing of sight with a view to correcting it by spectacles. There are certain exceptions, into which I shall not go to-day.

Clause 21 also is important. It prohibits the sale of optical appliances other than by a medical practitioner or a registered optician. This is the clause which should prohibit both people buying spectacles, where they have tested their own sight, at certain chain stores, and also the selling of spectacles by intinerant vendors. Optical appliances are later defined as: Appliances to remedy defects of vision. So this clause would not prohibit the sale of such things as sun glasses or field glasses, or just a magnifying glass for reading; but if the glasses were tinted glasses, with a lens to correct vision, then they would be included. Here again, there are also various exceptions.

Clause 23 allows for the carrying on of a business for a certain period after the death of a registered optician until a successor can be found, although the provisions relating to the testing of sight and the sale of glasses will, of course, still apply. Clause 25 enables the General Optical Council to make rules on matters affecting the profession, such as advertising. It enables the Council to prohibit advertising or to regulate advertising, though it cannot prevent a dispensing optician from having a shop window with some glasses in it. Otherwise, it can prohibit advertising and, judging from the many newspaper cuttings I have here, showing the most lurid and misleading advertisements which have been put in the Press to encourage people to go to the opticians, I think that this is certainly a sound provision. Clauses 27, 28 and 29 deal with machinery, and Clause 30 is the Interpretation Clause. I have already mentioned the most important definition, that of sight testing, and there is also the important definition of "optical appliances".

My Lords, I have tried to run briefly through some of the main points of the Bill. It is a long Bill—it has thirty clauses—and obviously I should have wearied your Lordships even more had I gone through them in detail. I think that it is a Bill which is in the public interest and which would, if passed, give a status to opticians and be a protection to the public. I very much hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Amherst of Hackney.)

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, may I say a word on this matter? As a doctor I had a good deal to do with eye testing, especially when I was a member of the London County Council staff. It is important that the scheme embodied in the Bill should go off without a hitch and that there should be a clear decision on what is to be done and what is not to be done. It should be made clear that in future no one who has not had a thorough training may dispense or prescribe spectacles, because there is nothing more dangerous than to allow these important adjuncts to health to be provided by people who do not understand optics and sold merely for the purpose of making a profit. That may be all right in its way, but it is not the medical way and it is not the right way to treat the public. I hope that we shall see this practice disappear altogether during the next few years.

In my view, there should be no possibility of anyone who is not a trained specialist in eyesight, and in all the difficulties that beset eyesight, through different causes in different individuals, carrying out this work in the future, as has occurred in the past. Only to-day, as I came into your Lordships' House, I was talking to a Member of another place who had his own eyes seriously damaged by having wrong treatment given to him. This was not a case of lack of money or lack of opportunity of getting advice. I think we should lay down clearly and rigidly the means of protecting and controlling the prescribing, the dispensing and the issuing of glasses, to see that they are the right kind, since otherwise they may do more harm than good.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to associate noble Lords on these Benches with the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, has moved so well. It is no easy task to move so complicated a Bill, with so many clauses, in such a way that your Lordships can have a clear picture of what we are discussing. May I say how glad I am to associate these Benches with a Bill moved from the other side of the House, because this, of all things, is a matter which should engender no political thoughts? By that, I mean not only no Party political thoughts in your Lordships' House, but also no politics in the optical world between opticians and the medical profession.

I confess that this Bill seems to me to be the end of a long period of disagreement. When, in 1948, at the time of my noble friend Lord Attlee's Government, I was asked to consider becoming the Chairman of this Committee, I asked to see some of the facts; and I found that there were a number of what the noble Earl, Lord Woolton, was subsequently to call in your Lordships' House, "historically warring factions". I found that for years the various groups of opticians had not agreed amongst themselves; they all, in turn, had not agreed with the doctors, and the doctors had not agreed with them; and it was not at all clear whether the educational people had agreed with any of them.

As the noble Lord has said, twenty-five years ago there was a Bill in another place, which did not obtain the approval of that House, and there had been the appointment of a Select Committee, which again ended in disagreement. But in 1949 a Committee was appointed which contained in its membership representatives of the optical organisations and the medical profession, and professors, politicians; and others who contributed both the educational and the general public outlook to all the suggestions that came in front of the Committee. In 1952, after two and a half years' hard work in taking evidence, these gentlemen were able to sign a unanimous Report. And one of the reasons why I wish to speak on this Bill is to pay tribute to all of those, whose names are not even mentioned on an occasion such as this, who gave of their time voluntarily, at great discomfort in travelling and at great difficulty because of their own professions, so that the country could have the benefit of their knowledge and advice to try to help solve this problem. I think it would be wrong not to say something about it on this occasion.

The Report of the Committee first of all gave the facts—facts which show, as the noble Lord said, that there was no legislation, no control and no provision for even a minimum standard of training. From 1895 onwards, there had been established some five different organisations within the profession, every one doing its best to set up what legislation did not provide—standards of education and professional qualifications, and rules of ethics and professional conduct for those who practised to follow. Having reviewed the whole of the evidence, I think it only right to say that over the period of years they did a wonderful job of work, even though they disagreed among themselves as to the ways in which matters should go ahead. They did it at their own expense in time and money—it is true, aiming at something better for themselves, but in the main doing a job in the public interest which Governments and Government Departments had never done. They suffered from one of the things from which all of us who are connected with organisations suffer: that the very people who did not join the organisation, to be subjected to ethical standards and control, were the very people they were anxious to deal with. The whole time there has been this limited number of people who have made it easier for slack standards to be inflicted on the public.

I cannot conceive that it is the right way for the eyes of the people of this country to be treated that a man who spends 90 per cent. of his time as a watchmaker or a radio technician can spend the other 10 per cent. of his time behind a red curtain at the back of his shop as an optician. Nor do I think the huckster who stands on a booth in a county square—and I have seen this myself—can be the man to whom to entrust God's precious gift of eyesight in these modern days. For all our legislation and all our desires to establish a modern National Health Service, we have never bothered ourselves, until this Bill, with anything dealing with the standard of our eyes.

The Committee to which I have referred realised from the evidence given both by the medical and the optical organisations what was needed in the public interest. But I should not pretend that the Report presented in recommendations was what was 100 per cent. desired by any one of those who gave evidence; indeed it would not be true to say that every member of the Committee found in the report 100 per cent. of what he would like as an ideal. What was found was the ability to produce in the public interest a Report which was workable and could form the basis of legislation such as the noble Lord has invited us to support to-day; and, more important than anything else, perhaps, the medical and optical professions were together, lined up on a common work.

When the Report was received, in turn, it did not receive unanimous support, obviously because it did not go 100 per cent. this way or that way. But that did not deter the Government who looked at the Report. By this time it was not the Government of my noble friend Lord Attlee but the Conservative Government, and they proceeded to actuate work inside the appropriate Ministry to try to secure that something was done. The noble Earl, Lord Woolton, when he dealt with this matter in the debate on registration in 1954, was good enough to tell us something to which I think it is well worth while to pay regard in respect of many other Reports. He said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 188, col. 494]: It rather alarms me sometimes to hear of the long period 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. The noble Earl was good enough to say that, perhaps in his lifetime—and that is in my own—there might be some form of legislation as a result of the work that had been done; and this Bill, I am glad to say, is well within the span of my lifetime. It means that we should pay tribute to those who have co-operated with the present Government to make this possible.

The noble Earl, Lord Woolton, said on that occasion that, while the Government were anxious to advance with legislation, there was always the question of priorities and finding Parliamentary time in days of a heavy legislative programme. So the Bill was missing from Queen's Speeches until last November, in the ballot for Private Members' measures in another place, Mr. Ronald Russell found a place in the ballot and was good enough to put down this Bill. I think it would be wrong of me to stand here without saying how much I appreciate—as I know the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading of this Bill does but, from a modesty point of view, would not say—what Mr. Russell has done in undertaking a complex Bill, of great length, as a Private Member's measure and piloting it through the other place, thus making it possible for the noble Lord to move it here this afternoon. I think it a tribute not only to other people, but to our Parliamentary traditions in general, that he was able to assemble around him a dozen people of all three Parties in the other place, including two ex-Ministers of Health, one from the Labour and one from the Conservative side, and with their hearty co-operation and much work to model the Bill into the form in which it is to-day.

They did not spare themselves as a team in meeting those who had legitimate complaints about the original draft; and, as the noble Lord said, in three days of Standing Committee C in the other place they did not hesitate to accept agreed Amendments to put the Bill in front of this House as one which is in the public interest and one which has been agreed by those persons who ought to agree these things as facts before Parliament is asked to give too much time to them. Finally, after a long Report stage of nearly five hours the Third Reading was reached, and we have the Bill here; and I hope that this House will speed it in the next few weeks with that same thought for the public interest that has been in everybody's mind and everybody's action in the period from November to date in the other place. Some of us have said on many occasions that we are a wonderful people, in that we can have our violent and bitter political conflict but we can find it possible among ourselves all the time, without Party rancour, to do those things which are not in Party interest but are in the general interest of the public—those things which are necessary if the people of this country are to go on improving from time to time as we desire. I commend this Bill as one of those Bills which fits in with that highest tradition of the model of Parliaments to which we are proud to belong.

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of noble Lords on these Benches I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Crook, in giving the Bill a warm welcome in your Lordships' House. I shall not take up a great deal of your Lordships' time, but there are one or two points of importance to which I should like to refer. The first is that I am sure the value to the optical profession of the series of registers will be very great indeed. One has seen what good has come from that, first of all in the medical profession, and secondly, in the dental profession; and now, by this Bill, we shall see it in the optical profession.

There are two clauses of the Bill to which I should like to refer briefly—Clause 20 and Clause 25. Clause 20 defines those people who should be allowed to test eyes and to prescribe. I should like to reinforce what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Haden-Guest, as to the great danger that occurs to people who get the wrong kind of treatment of their eyes and do not realise that a mistake may have been made. The point about Clause 25 is that there should be some control of advertising. We do not want to do away with it completely, but we do want control of some sort, and I think that this Bill gives it. I should like to express my pleasure that the long discussions which members of my profession and the promoters of this Bill have had about the membership of the General Optical Council should have been finally settled in a way which appears to be pleasing to both sides. That is a great thing, because I know that my profession tries to jump in rather firmly, whereas I think these optical people should be able to control their own personnel.

I should like to mention one other point about which I am afraid I did not give the noble Lord notice. I must say that the noble Lord, Lord Crook, has been lucky to find a Private Member to introduce his Bill, because whereas Lord Crook's Committee reported in 1952, there is another Committee, the Cope Committee on Medical Auxiliaries (in which I have an interest as President of the Occupational Therapists) who reported in 1951, and there is no sign of a Bill coming along at all. Although I should have preferred the Opticians Bill to be a Government measure, the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Crook, has managed to find a Private Member to introduce it, and that the Bill has come along so quickly, is something that may cause the Cope Committee to think along similar lines. I associate myself wish other noble Lords in giving this Bill a warm welcome.


My Lords, it might be for the convenience of the House if I were to indicate at this stage the Government's attitude to the Bill. Since it is not a Government Bill it does not, of course, fall to me to justify it to your Lordships' House. Indeed, your Lordships might think it rather superfluous if I were to attempt to do so, in view of the very full and effective manner in which my noble friend Lord Amherst of Hackney has explained it to the House. The Government's interest in the Bill, and in any Bill of this nature, is that it should be in the general interest of the health and well-being of the people, and that it should at the same time safeguard the rights of practitioners who will be affected by it. I am able to inform your Lordships that the Government are satisfied with the provisions of the Bill on both these grounds. Moreover, it is a Bill which will maintain and raise the standards of what is a most vital profession; and, therefore, I have no hesitation whatsoever in commending it to your Lordships.

Before I sit down, I wish to express the most sincere appreciation and gratitude to those who, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Crook, devoted themselves for some two and a half years to examining the situation with which the Bill deals, and for producing that highly comprehensive and unanimous Report that has made the Bill possible. I am sure that all noble Lords would join with me in tendering thanks to the noble Lord and his Committee.


My Lords, having regard to all that has been said, I do not need to detain your Lordships for more than a moment or two. First, I should like to pay a tribute, as has been done so fully by the noble Lord, the Minister of State for Scotland, to my noble friend Lord Crook. We all know the responsibility which rests upon the Chairman of a Committee of this kind, and our thanks are due in great measure to him in addition to all those who have already been mentioned. We know that this Bill is a non-Party Bill. It has the support of all ophthalmic practitioners, if I may call them such, and will undoubtedly serve a useful purpose. I venture to express the hope that the Optical Council which is to be set up under this Bill will have as its primary consideration the interests of the consumer or the patient. The noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, has given us instances where great harm has been done by unqualified practitioners, and I venture to hope that that is one of the principal matters to which the Council, when formed, will give attention. I cordially support the Bill.


My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have given the Bill such a warm welcome, and also to associate myself with the tributes the noble Lord, Lord Crook, paid to all those who have worked to make the Bill a possibility. I should also like to associate myself with the thanks to him for the amount of work that he has done over many years.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.