HL Deb 01 May 1990 vol 518 cc893-5

Lord Oram asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have for financing on a national basis the training of orthoptists as undertaken in paragraph 6.11 of Working Paper 10 (Education and Training) issued in conjunction with the White Paper Working for Patients.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper)

My Lords, the Government propose that from 1992 orthoptic training will be financed on a national basis and located an two or more universities in England and one college of further education in Scotland. Negotiations are in progress with a number of universities and we hope to reach agreement on financial arrangements in good time for the next financial year.

Lord Oram

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that helpful reply. I hope that there will be a good outcome to the discussions that are going on. However, is she confident that this matter is being approached with a sufficient sense of urgency? I understand that there is considerable danger that the deadline: for publication of the degrees is February next year. A great deal of preparation has to be undertaken before that properly can be done. Can the noble Baroness give the House the assurance that sufficient money for those degree courses will be forthcoming, and in good time?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I certainly hope that we shall be in a position well before February next year to publish the results of the negotiations which are now being carried on. The universities' requirements for capital funding in order to refurbish accommodation and to purchase equipment are central to the discussions. We are exploring exactly what these costs will be and how best they may be met.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister's assurance that negotiations are going well. Is she aware that there is a good deal of concern particularly within the British Orthoptic Society? The society seems to think, despite the upbeat approach of Working Paper 10 (Education and Training) , that the required sum of a quarter of a million sounds has somehow been lost, withdrawn or become unavailable. Since there is such anxiety, will the noble Baroness or an appropriate Minister get in touch with the society to ensure that the uncertainities in its mind are removed?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I shall certainly pass on the remarks that have been made in the course of this Question. Officials are in close and regular contact with the British Orthoptic Society, the relevant universities, and the College of Ophthalmologists.

The working paper to which the Question on the Order Paper refers went out in October of last year as a consultative document. We are now considering and assessing responses with a view to issuing guidance.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, where will the funding come from? Will it come from the Universities Funding Council or from the DHSS?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, perhaps I can best quote the White Paper. It states that from the date when the new arrangements take effect the department will top slice centrally for the cost of orthoptists' training although it will look to the regions within which the centres are situated to manage the training and contracts.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, will my noble friend help my education and possibly that of others in the House by telling us what orthoptists are?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Orthoptists form one of the professions allied to medicine. They have traditionally been concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of muscular conditions of the eyes, in particular squints, but their role has widened and expanded over the years. Their main clients are children. Increasingly, they undertake vision screening for young children, and also work among the elderly, including stroke and glaucoma victims. They work closely with ophthalmologists and increasingly act as the first point of referral for patients from a variety of sources.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, will the noble Baroness further assist us by explaining what is meant by top slicing centrally?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, it means withholding allocations which would otherwise be made direct to the regions for the purpose of a particular need.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is there an established need for an increase in the number of orthoptists? If so, do government proposals take that sufficiently into account?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am not aware of any particular pressure to increase the number of orthoptists. I understand that there are about 150 orthoptists undergoing training at any given time and that there are some 650 working orthoptists. I am not aware of any great demand to increase numbers.

Lord Oram

My Lords, is it not the case that the present training units are being phased out? Is there not a danger that they will be phased out before a satisfactory alternative arrangement is made? Will the Minister ensure that that dilemma is avoided?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, yes. The negotiations taking place are intended to cover everything, including detailed arrangements for the closure of schools. Our intention is that intakes of new students to existing training schools will cease from the autumn of 1992 by which time we expect to have the new arrangements in place.

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