HL Deb 05 April 1982 vol 429 cc4-6

2.48 a.m.

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 about the cheap foreign imports of lenses from which the opticians have allegedly made £6 million profit out of the National Health Service, and about the source of these imports.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, the unintended profits referred to are believed to have been made mostly on spectacles containing single-vision lenses. From the overseas trade statistics and information from the industry, it is estimated that the United Kingdom imports roughly 35 per cent. of such lenses used.

Lord Rugby

My Lords, may I be assured by the Minister that, under the disciplinary powers conferred on the General Optical Council under the Act, they in fact exercise those powers to prosecute their own members if necessary, where they are guilty of fraudulent practice?

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

I feel I should set the matter in some perspective, my Lords. The noble Lord is concerned about the £6 million which had been unintentionally overpaid to opticians. On the other hand, the department owes the optical industry something like £70 million for underpayments, of which about £191/2 million has now been paid. Negotiations are proceeding on both counts.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, does the Minister recall that on 18th February he told the House that the Director-General of Fair Trading was examining the whole position and that talks were going on with the Optical Whitley Council because many of your Lordships felt that a fee of £4.50 for examination and £4.20 for dispensing was rather inadequate and perhaps a temptation to find expenses in other ways? It would reassure many of us who are concerned with the matter if the Minister would say what point the talks have reached.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, I feel sure that the noble Baroness knows that new fees have been fixed since 1st April. The fees that are now being fixed are interim fees while the negotiations are going on for a full settlement of all the outstanding issues.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us who are interested in this subject are not specially critical of the opticians for making too much money? We are critical of the Government for allowing them to have a monopoly. Is the noble Lord aware that the glasses that I am now wearing, and through which I see extremely well, cost 10 dollars in New York across the counter? Why should the British public be deprived of this perfectly reasonable outlet for their money in order to improve their sight, or to make it worse, as they prefer?

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, it might be going a little far to say so, but one might hope that when this large amount of money is repaid to opticians—and £70 million is a lot of money—there will be a fair chance that the charges for private spectacles will not go up, or possibly may come down.

Lord Monson

My Lords, following what the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, has just said, can the Minister confirm that there is no legal impediment whatsoever to the sale of simple reading spectacles on board cross-channel ferries outside the 3-mile limit? If that is the case, would not such an innovation on the one hand help the consumer and on the other hand help the strained financial situation of the British Rail Sealink subsidiary?

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, I feel that the noble Lord is ranging a little widely.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord what is the difference between cheap imported lenses and non-imported lenses?

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, the difference lies in the fact that the cheap imported lenses make it possible for the opticians to make a profit. That is really where the problem has arisen, and where the opticians buy their lenses has nothing to do with the department.

Lord Hunter of Newington

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what is the present situation regarding the Office of Fair Trading, to which the Government have made a reference?

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, unhappily, I cannot give a precise answer to that point. The Office of Fair Trading has promised to report during the course of this year.