HL Deb 09 May 1988 vol 496 cc821-3

Lord Rugby asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they accept the ruling of the European Court of Justice on 23rd February (Case 353/85) that the provision of spectacles is not a medical service and that the United Kingdom is in breach of its treaty obligations by exempting the provision of spectacles from VAT.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, the United Kingdom has a treaty obligation to implement rulings from the European Court and, as my honourable friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury made clear in another place, the Government will abide by the Court's decision. Time is needed, however, to study the judgment in detail and to consult interested trade bodies before firm decisions can be made about how to proceed.

Lord Rugby

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that there is now a very large section of the community who do not regard an eyesight | test as having any medical bearing whatsoever? Is he also aware that people wish to purchase their spectacles from other sources because they believe that in that way they can suit their eyesight very much better? Does my noble friend agree that that view is broadly in agreement with the findings of committees in the past that there is no relevant health requirement in the choosing of spectacles?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, obviously the judgment of the European Court will have to be studied very carefully, as I said. As the noble Lord will be aware, the Government have deregulated opticians to some extent over the past few years. That has resulted in quite a substantial fall in prices.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that British opticians and optical surgeons find this an appalling ruling? Should the Government not point out to the European Court that the provision of spectacles is a part of the great British National Health Service, and should they not challenge the European Court's exceedingly myopic decision?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the sixth directive was agreed by all member states in 1977 when a previous government were in power. Therefore we have to abide by the findings of the Court. As regards the National Health Service, the supply of spectacles which are free or covered by the voucher scheme will need to be looked at.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that an examination of the judgment in the case gives rise to certain anxieties? Will he take steps to ensure that Her Majesty's Government's pleadings in the case are made fully public, as distinct from the summary that appears in the judgment referred to? Is the Minister also aware that it has hitherto been generally accepted that Her Majesty in Parliament is alone responsible for the levying of taxation in the United Kingdom and that it was on that basis—which is well known—and on that understanding that this country joined the European Economic Community?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as concerns the request for the pleadings to be made public, I shall have to draw the attention of my right honourable friend to the noble Lord's remarks. As to whether Parliament is responsible in this case, we adopted the sixth directive in 1977 and therefore we have to abide by the rulings in this case.

Lord Monson

My Lords, now that the European Court has confirmed that the provision of spectacles is not a medical matter, as we all suspected, will Her Majesty's Government revoke the absurd ruling that one must produce a prescription before being able to buy a simple pair of reading glasses? Is the noble Lord aware that in advanced countries such as the United States and Canada one can walk into a chemist and buy an excellent pair of reading glasses such as mine for the equivalent of £8 or £9 without any prescription requirement whatsoever?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as I said, we shall have to give careful consideration to the findings of the Court and we shall have to consult the trading associations. I am aware of the noble Lord's interest in this matter, and we shall have to consider how next to proceed.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that whatever the decision of the European Court such a tax cannot be imposed without the consent of Parliament?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, that is true. Legislation will be required to bring it in.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm in the light of his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that legislation is to come before this House very shortly which will enable the Government to correct the nonsense of requiring people to obtain a preliminary prescription before they can buy reading glasses? Can he assure the House that there will be an amendment to that effect now that the Government have accepted the verdict of the European Court that this is not a medical provision?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend that assurance at present. I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health, who no doubt will consider the matter.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, were Her Majesty's Government represented at the hearing of this matter and did our representative oppose the proposal in the hearing before the Court?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am not certain how the Court goes about such matters. Presumably as we were taken to court we must have been represented. We opposed the proposal; otherwise we should not be in the position that we are in now.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the Minister's assurance that we opposed the proposal will help us hereafter.

Lord Rugby

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that previous committees of inquiry, including one commissioned by his own party in 1927 and another in 1949, believed that there was absolutely no medical consideration whatsoever in the sale of optical appliances? If that is the case, why is it part of the health service?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, we are now straying from the Question, which concerns VAT on the sale of spectacles. However, I have taken on board the remarks made by the noble Lord.

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