HL Deb 25 February 1976 vol 368 cc697-9

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why it takes approximately three years to obtain the new National Health Service hearing aid.


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services estimates that up to 1 million people may benefit from the new behind-the-ear hearing aid and it will inevitably take time to build up resources to match that level of demand. For this reason the aid is being issued in the first instance to certain priority groups, but we hope it will be possible to make it generally available during the next four years. This will mean that the programme will have been completed in the five years which was my right honourable friend's original estimate of the time needed.


My Lords, is not one of the principal troubles that this hearing aid is made abroad, and in these times of high unemployment would it not be sensible to train a large number of people to make it in this country?


My Lords, the noble Lord indicated to me at a very late hour—I am not complaining about that—that he would be putting this point of view. I am sorry that it was not possible for me to see him before your Lordships' House sat, because all the aids are made in the United Kingdom. They are made to a Danish design. There are two behind-the-ear appliances which we are using at the present moment, known as the B11 and the B12. But I can assure the noble Lord that they are all made in the United Kingdom.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. Even so, could we not train more people to make them than are making them now?


My Lords, the noble Lord has put his finger on the point, in the sense that we have a number of priority groups. There are a large number of people who are entitled to these aids and it will take some time to meet the demand, because there is a shortage of skilled personnel. We have our Government training schemes and we have not lost sight of that factor.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us what are the priority groups?


I can, my Lords, but I did not want to take up too much of your Lordships' time. These groups include mothers with young children under the age of five (this relates to the mother's deafness); young people up to the age of 18, or 21 years of age if they are in full-time education; people whose head-worn aids were replaced by body-worn models when they left school; people with exceptional medical need or an additional severe handicap, such as paralysis, arthritis or blindness; and people who are receiving a war pension for deafness. There are other categories, but they are the five main ones.


My Lords, could not some additional categories now be added to these priority groups, especially where a behind-the-ear appliance would be of material assistance in productive occupation?


My Lords, since 1st September last year we have included other sections of the community. For example, people of any age who are normally in full-time or part-time employment are also included, and—again, regardless of age—those receiving full-time or part-time education. We have added to the priority groups.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether the old aids, which are now being superseded, are still being manufactured?


My Lords, they are available for the simple reason —if it is ever simple to answer these questions—that the behind-the-ear aid which we are now using, and which has been the subject of a good deal of research, can be useful only to people suffering from a certain type of deafness. The Medical Research Council is investigating and researching into other aids, but, for the reason I have just given, some of the other aids are still available.


My Lords, when my noble friend referred to the shortage of skilled labour for making these appliances, was he aware of the fact that there is some scientific similarity between hearing aids and telephones, and that at the present moment big companies, like GEC and Plessey, are dismissing workers from their telephone factories? Could not some sub-contracting be undertaken here?


My Lords, this is a matter which I shall have to look into and refer to my right honourable friend.