HL Deb 16 May 1975 vol 360 cc1001-6

1.34 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It comes to your Lordships' House from another place where it was introduced by a Private Member, Mr. Gerry Fitt. It was welcomed by the Government as a useful contribution towards extending the consumer protection already enjoyed by hearing aid users in Great Britain to users in Northern Ireland.

The purpose of this Bill is to extend the Hearing Aid Council Act 1968 to Northern Ireland. The 1968 Act provides for the establishment of a Hearing Aid Council responsible for professional standards and the registration of dispensers. Anybody who is not registered is prohibited from acting as a hearing aid dispenser. Therefore, besides meaning that persons purchasing or hiring hearing aids in Northern Ireland do not have the same protection as is afforded to those in Great Britain, the limitation of the 1968 Act to the mainland of Great Britain means that they have to pay VAT on all their aids. This is because only those medical and para-medical practitioners who are on statutory registers are exempt from VAT.

Since 11th November last year, VAT exemption has been granted extra-statutorily, on the understanding that there would be legislation this Session. The extension will enable Northern Ireland dispensers to register with the Council and thus enable them to claim exemption from VAT. The hard of hearing in Northern Ireland will then enjoy the consumer protection already afforded to hearing aid users in Great Britain.

I am advised that the Council has drawn up a code of practice aimed at maintaining a high standard of service and advice to clients. Registration by tile Council is granted following a minimum of 12 months' training and success in the Council's examinations. As was the case with the original Act, any Northern Ireland dispenser who, over the last two years, has acted as a dispenser for at least six months will automatically qualify for registration at the commencement of this Act. The code and standards of practice are agreed in consultation with the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection.

Northern Ireland was omitted from the original Bill, partly, I understand, by an oversight and partly because of the existence then of Stormont. This seemed not to matter greatly at the time because of the small number of dispensers in Northern Ireland. However, the 1968 Act gained a little greater significance following the 1972 Finance Act which introduced VAT. It would be possible to make an Order in Council to set up separate machinery in Northern Ireland, but in view of the small number of practitioners this would be a wasteful and artificial procedure. The obvious alternative is extension of the 1968 Act to Northern Ireland so that the Hearing Aid Council, like the General Optical Council and many others, becomes a United Kingdom body. This cannot be done by Order in Council but requires a Bill; so here we have the difference between Great Britain and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland.

This Bill will not result in any additional public expenditure. The Hearing Aid Council charges an annual registration fee of £15 to dispensers, and an annual retention fee of £5 to employers of dispensers. As the Bill merely proposes extension of the existing Council to Northern Ireland, the legislation will be self-financing. Reduction in VAT receipts is insignificant. Since the administrative machinery already exists and the number of Northern Ireland dispensers is small—about 15, I understand—the occasional query which might be addressed to the Department would not necessitate any additional public service manpower.

The Bill is very short and contains two clauses. Subsection (1) of Clause 1 is the operative subsection and achieves the general purposes of the Bill. Subsection (2) makes a number of necessary modifications to the 1968 Act. Subsection (2)(a) provides that the references in the 1968 Act to the qualifying period for registration shall, for dispensers and traders in Northern Ireland, be the commencement of this Act. Subsection (2)(b) provides for appeals by Northern Ireland registered dispensers and traders against the erasure of their names from the register. Subsections (2)(c) and (d) modify the 1968 Act to allow the disciplinary committee of the Council to investigate disciplinary cases in Northern Ireland. Subsections (3)(a) and (b) provide that any rule made under the 1968 Act shall extend to Northern Ireland, unless they otherwise expressly provide.

Clause 2 contains the formal provisions. The Act will be brought into force by Order in Council as soon as the Hearing Aid Council has made the necessary preparations, which I believe will be in a month or two.

I am sure your Lordships will agree that this Bill will be of value to the hard of hearing in Northern Ireland. It gives me personally a great deal of pleasure to introduce this measure, which is harmonising legislation within the United Kingdom, and I am sure it will commend itself to your Lordships. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Raglan.)

1.41 p.m.


My Lords, the House will indeed be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, for introducing this quite brief measure, which will be of considerable benefit, as he so rightly said, to the people of Northern Ireland, and of benefit incidentally to the Treasury because there is no financial provision clause whatsoever. There are two matters on which I should like to seek a reply from the noble Lord. One is in regard to the date of commencement, which is referred to in Clause 2: This Act shall come into operation on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint. The noble Lord has referred to an exemption that has existed since 11th November of last year and it would naturally be of great benefit if the Government could possibly arrange for this exemption to continue until such time as the Act conies into operation.

The second matter to which I wish to draw the attention of the Government is the limitation of contributions. A question has been raised with regard to the registration of dispensers. A £15 subscription is to be made and £5 retention fee on the register. It occurs to us that these subscriptions may be a little high in present circumstances. It is difficult to relate the subscriptions to similar subscriptions elsewhere; nevertheless, I should like to have the Government's comment on that fact. The central issue which surrounds it is that of the anomalies which arise out of VAT, and especially the anomalies which arise out of multi-rate VAT under the present Finance Bill. I think the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, has brought this matter to the attention of your Lordships in this manner today with great benefit to the people concerned in Northern Ireland. There is no question but that hearing aids freed from VAT will provide great benefit to those concerned. One is only too well aware that young people have been subjected to probably much earlier damage to their eardrums through "discos ", but this is a health matter and I will not mention it further to your Lordships today. I welcome the measure before us.

1.43 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Northern Ireland Office, who unfortunately cannot be with us today, I should like to say that the Government welcome this Bill and congratulate my noble friend on introducing it. It is most important that the people of Northern Ireland should be able to enjoy the same level of consumer protection as is accorded to hearing aid users in Great Britain. It is equally important that they should not have to pay more for their hearing aids by having to pay value added tax.

When this Bill was considered in another place there was a good deal of discussion about the deficiencies of the original Act, particularly in relation to the lack of control over advertising. The Hearing Aid Council has no powers in this respect, but I have no doubt that this matter will receive further attention in the future. The Hearing Aid Council established by the original Act has drawn up a firm code or practice and hearing aid users and dispensers in Northern Ireland will benefit from the high standards set. The great majority of hearing aid dispensers in Northern Ireland already provide a high standard of service and advice to their clients, and I know they have been following the progress of this Bill and are glad that they will soon have the opportunity to register with the Council.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, raised two specific matters. I will gladly have them looked into and will communicate with him. I will simply end by saying that although this Bill has a very limited purpose, nevertheless it will be of considerable value to a number of people in Northern Ireland, and I welcome it on behalf of the Government.

1.45 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, raised two questions to which I think I can provide at least part answers. I am sure the Government will look at the matter of the exemption continuing until the date of operation. It will not be very long in any case and, as the noble Lord knows, the exemption has come quietly into operation and there is no reason why it should be discontinued because the Bill is in passage.

With regard to the £15 registration fee, I do not think that is unduly high. People have to register with any professional body, and I should say that £15 is quite a modest sum, particularly when examinations have to be taken and a lot of paperwork has to be done. The sum probably only just covers the cost of registration.

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