HL Deb 14 October 1981 vol 424 cc371-4
Lord Rugby

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 whether they will make a statement on the prosecution resulting in Mr. Lewis being fined £400 plus costs for selling magnifying lenses in frames (16th June) and to state whether the General Optical Council has powers to control the importation and sale of all refracting lenses, or, if only of specific lenses, whether then that a list and description of such lenses should not be available at all times.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Elton)

My Lords, on 16th June 1981, a company known as E. & L. Cligman Ltd., and trading under the name of "Mister Lewis", was charged with two offences of selling optical appliances contrary to Section 21 of the Opticians Act. The company pleaded guilty and was fined £200 on each offence and ordered to pay £50 costs. The prosecution was brought by the General Optical Council after it had received a large number of complaints that the company, without the supervision of a registered medical practitioner or a registered optician, had been offering for sale plastic frames glazed with magnifying lenses.

The General Optical Council does not have power to control the importation of refracting lenses; it does however have the same right as anyone else to prosecute where an optical appliance is sold by a person who is not a registered medical practitioner or a registered optician.

Lord Rugby

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for referring specifically to Section 21 of the Opticians Act. Many people today feel that that confers not only monopoly rights but also a form of legal infallibility in all such cases. I should like him to say: Must anyone who tried to bring similar simple lenses into this country inevitably face a case which they cannot hope to win?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the case in question does not refer to importation but to sale. I cannot of course say what any court would judge in a particular case in the future, only that the law is as expressed in the section of the Act to which the noble Lord has referred.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble Lord the Minister say whether any of the large number of complaints came from the customers who bought the lenses?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I do not know as to the individual cases; I think that the bulk of the complaints came from the trade.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether, as the General Optical Council have now persuaded their members that they may display prices, these are now being generally displayed? Is it not a fact that a number of people who did have prices displayed in their windows have now withdrawn those prices so that no one knows how much he is going to have to pay for their over-priced spectacles? Further, is it not a fact that the Minister for Consumer Affairs has stated—and this is the only cure—this: I remain firmly convinced that the best way to foster vigorous competition in the supply of private spectacles would be to relax the monopoly in supply imposed by the Opticians Act. Is not this one of the Acts which should come forward in the next Session, to the great benefit of those who buy a million pairs of spectacles a year and pay two or three times what they ought to pay for their spectacles?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, the ban on the display of prices in opticians' windows was lifted by the General Optical Council on 1st May this year. The Office of Fair Trading has now sent out a questionnaire asking 662 opticians whether and in what form they are displaying prices. We shall know more about the results of this change when we have the answers to the questionnaires.

On a subjective level, I visited three opticians' shops this morning and found the prices clearly displayed in all of them. As to the last part of the noble Lord's question, before we decide to change the Act we must establish how exactly it is working. That means a review. The terms of reference for this review are at present under discussion between the two departments concerned and the Office of Fair Trading.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, I must first declare an interest: I use the blasted things. I am a victim of this racket, on which I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing. Is the noble Lord aware that when I was a young man there used to be a large counter at Woolworths where one just went along and selected a pair of spectacles that fitted? This was admirable for the vast majority of those who required glasses merely because old age had somewhat weakened the sight, and it does no harm at all to choose something which makes reading a little easier. A small minority require and can get proper optical assistance; but bad glasses have very little effect at all in making sight either worse or better.

Is the noble Lord further aware that if I were to break my glasses and required another pair urgently I would go to the optician and would be told that they could do a rush job if I paid an extravagant price of some £20 or £30 for a set of frames, but that if I had National Health ones it would take about three weeks? That is a racket, and it ought to be stopped.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I remember with delight as a small boy the fascination which that very counter at Woolworths to which the noble Lord referred afforded me until I was upbraided for playing with it. As to present practice, the noble Lord is probably aware—because it has been said in this House before—that qualified examination of the eyes of somebody looking for spectacles can reveal not only diseases of the eye but diseases of the rest of the body. This is an occasion that should not be missed, in the view of this Government. As to the question of the urgent requirement for glasses which the noble Lord anticipates, I hope it will not arise, but I shall certainly inquire as to the delays he referred to. In the meantime, I suggest that he carries a spare pair.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, without wishing to encourage self-medication, in general, may I ask the noble Lord whether he does not agree that to insist on a detailed ophthalmic examination before allowing elderly people to buy magnifying glasses is about as sensible as insisting on a medical examination before allowing them to buy walking-sticks?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I really should not like to verify that analogy.

Lord Pargiter

My Lords, would the noble Lord say whether or not it would be desirable to separate the prescription of glasses from the supply, so that there is some freedom of choice?

Lord Elton

My Lords, in effect prescription and supply do not necessarily rest in the same hands at present.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the vast majority of Her Majesty's lieges are fully satisfied with the regulations now established in regard to this very intricate trade and are quite happy to leave them in the hands of Government if they are going to have an inquiry?

Several noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am obliged for the noble Lord's support. None the less, this is a position which I should wish to look at.

Lord Spens

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that his suggestion that one should carry a spare pair of glasses is a very expensive suggestion? Is he further aware that I am now wearing a new pair of National Health glasses which cost me £18, and when I asked for a spare pair I was told that would cost me between £30 and £40?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I take note of what the noble Lord says. The cost of National Health spectacles for the first pair is very little and amounts to only £7.85 for the cheapest, and even that price can be waived where there are special needs.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, the National Health Service is the service we should all be using for spectacles. Anything outside that means that you pay £74 upwards for a new pair of spectacles—and not very strong ones either.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the prudent purchaser will doubtless bear the noble Baroness's advice in mind.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Young)

My Lords, I think we have had a very good run on this and that it would be the wish of the House that we should move on to the next Question.

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