HL Deb 06 July 1993 vol 547 cc1202-4

2.53 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to minimise the interference to hearing aids from the new GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) digital cordless telephones.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, the Radiocommunication Agency of DTI has investigated interference to hearing aids by the new pan-European digital mobile telephone system GSM. Two solutions were identified: first, improving immunity of hearing aids; and secondly, reducing the power of the mobile telephone transmissions. The agency has required GSM operators to use minimal transmitter power. A working group established by the British Standards Institution and chaired by Mr. Martin of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf is at the moment investigating the need for better immunity of hearing aids.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I am much obliged to the Minister for that very informative Answer. Is she aware—I am sure that she will be—that in continental Europe, where the system is now widely used, experience has shown that one such telephone can have a devastating effect on hearing aids from some metres away? Is she further aware that the noise can be very near the threshold of pain—rather like standing behind a jet plane? Will it be enough to restrict the permitted power levels of those instruments? In addition, will it be essential to modify the construction of hearing aids? If so, what is to happen to the 2 million hearing aids at present in use, one or two of which can occasionally be spotted in your Lordships' Chamber? In particular what is to be done about the very large numbers of hearing aids that are issued through the National Health Service?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am well aware of the interest of this House in the Question. I can assure the noble Lord that the two parts of the solution will come together. He referred to the extensive investigations on the Continent. There are operational GSM systems currently in France and Germany and we are not aware of any complaints. However, research was carried out in Denmark and presented to the Telecommunications Council in Brussels in June 1993. I am pleased to say that the report that was presented concludes that interference caused to hearing aids by the GSM system can probably be entirely or partly removed.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, although I do not as yet require a hearing aid, I am aware that growth and use of the cordless telephone is developing so fast that it has become almost a rival to the ghetto blaster in invading people's privacy on public transport? Does she agree that that should be taken into account in any consideration of the matter by the Government?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I fear that the noble Lord moves a little away from the question. The percentage of instruments is very small at the moment. There are 1,500 GSM telephones in this country out of a total of 1.3 million mobile telephones. However, new technology brings new problems and we are certainly looking at the solutions.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, bearing in mind that the noble Baroness is well aware of the efficiency of the behind-the-ear hearing aid and the comfort that it brings to millions of our fellow citizens as well as to some Members of this House, will she give the House an assurance that that wonderful instrument will in no way be impaired or prevented from providing its comfort by any other form of aid or telephone?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am pleased to reassure the noble Lord that we are working very closely with those involved with people misfortunate enough to be deaf; namely, organisations such as the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, the Hearing Aid Industry Association, the Department of Health and the manufacturers. We recognise that there is an issue and we are dealing with it.

Lord Peston

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the new GSM telephone produces what economists call an external diseconomy; in other words, it imposes uncovenanted costs on other people? It is a form of pollution. Following the Government's espousal of the "polluter pays principle", does she further agree that her department ought not to be going in for a lot of elaborate regulation but should be taxing those phones and using the proceeds to improve the efficiency of the hearing aids? There is a straightforward economic solution to the difficulty. Does she agree that it would be rather more sensible than the bureaucratic system which her department seems to favour?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, that was certainly an economic question from the noble Lord, Lord Peston. We have taken the opportunity to include a clause in the Wireless Telegraphy Act that requires the licences of GSM operators to minimise transmitted power and potential interference. However, I would point out that the units bring technological advantage. The world cannot stand still and there is a UK market for them.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, as a Member of this House who needs to use a hearing aid in order to hear some of the comments made on the other side of the Chamber, I must say that sometimes when I hear them I am so horrified that I wish I did not have one.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, knows, according to who stands up, whether to switch on or off.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, perhaps I can press the noble Baroness on one point in regard to existing aids. Is there a real prospect that all the National Health Service aids will have to be modified? If so, will not that be a considerable expense? Following the point made earlier, ought not the manufacturers to pay?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I return to my original comment, that at the moment it is a limited problem. It applies only within a few feet of an active hand portable GMS telephone and within 14 feet of a vehicle-mounted GSM telephone. We have reason to expect that metallising the casing of the hearing aid will provide substantial improvements in immunity and such situations will evolve through.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble Baroness explain what she means by "minimising the power"? Does she mean that the manufacturers will make the machine less efficient or that the operators will turn down the power? It appears to me to be a little difficult to make the manufacturers responsible and I would not rely on the users.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am pleased to say that the Act requires the actual unit to have minimum power. That means that there will need to be a greater infrastructure supporting the use of the units, but it will not be left to the control of the user.