HL Deb 27 February 1995 vol 561 cc1299-301

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to bring mail order selling of hearing aids under the regulatory framework of the hearing aid Acts.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, extending the coverage of the Hearing Aid Council Acts would require primary legislation. Before seeking parliamentary time for such a change, we would need to be convinced that it was necessary.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is not the noble Lord aware that there is a convincing case for primary legislation, because the failure to include mail order firms in those hearing aid Acts means that unscrupulous advertisers can sell inappropriate aids to deaf people with no possibility of detecting any of the 13 prescribed medical conditions which could be detected by a fully qualified prescriber? Surely it is in order for the Government to extend that legislation to protect all people who buy hearing aids, including the most vulnerable and the most gullible.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we are aware of the noble Lord's concerns about mail order hearing aids, but many of the advertisements fall foul of the new version of the British code of advertising practice. If that is the case, it follows that if a complaint is lodged with the ASA the advertisements will not be placed and therefore the trade will be curtailed severely. I should like to emphasise that loss of hearing is an extremely serious condition. Anyone who is concerned about it should seek proper medical advice rather than buy a hearing aid indiscriminately.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, what consultation has there been with some of the organisations involved? I am thinking of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and SENSE, but there are other bodies. What consultation was there about my noble friend's proposal before that rather negative reply was given?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord thinks that my reply was negative. We believe that the action provides safeguards. On the first part of his question, I am not in a position to enumerate the details of what has been done, but I shall write to the noble Lord with the information.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, in declaring an interest, will my noble friend differentiate between catalogue mail order and the mail order to which I think the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, was referring, which is advertised in the national press, because the catalogue mail order trade is carefully self-regulated, and, I believe, has a high reputation?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful comment. We are concerned, as I hope I made clear earlier, about those people who merely buy a hearing aid, from whatever source, by mail order without knowing whether it is suitable for their needs. Those who supply hearing aids in a responsible manner to qualified dispensers are obviously operating differently.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I can participate in debates in your Lordships' House thanks to a NHS hearing aid and the wonderful NHS staff whose work is so thorough? Despite the fact that some Members opposite do not agree, we should put on record our appreciation of the remarkable work that they do and that of those who construct the hearing aid which is probably the best in the world.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the noble Lord is a satisfied customer and such a good example of the activities of the NHS. I just hope that all noble Lords feel grateful when they can hear every word said at the Dispatch Box.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, in answer to a previous question my noble friend said that this trade could be controlled by the ASA. What sanctions does it have?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, if a form of advertising is held to be in breach of the British code of advertising practice, the media will not place the advertisements that the advertisers are trying to put out.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I am rather puzzled by the noble Lord's Answer. The legislation which deals with the ordinary sale of hearing aids must have a purpose. Why do the Government believe that there is no need to apply that legislation to mail order selling? Is the noble Lord aware that for my part, there is no stronger red rag to a bull than being told about lack of legislative time? When one thinks of what the Government find time for, they might find time to do something useful. However, this matter is puzzling. Was mail order selling originally left out on purpose or is it a mistake which needs rectifying?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the origins of this matter go back to the Hearing Aid Council Act 1968. When it was introduced, it was intended deliberately that the National Health Service would be outside the scope of the Act. Secondly, at that time it was not imagined that there would be mail order selling of that product at all. The crucial part of the Act provides that a dispenser of hearing aids is regulated. A dispenser is defined as: an individual who conducts or seeks to conduct oral negotiations with a view to effecting the supply of a hearing aid". Obviously, the National Health Service is excluded because it does not negotiate with a view to supply, and mail order is excluded because it is not an oral transaction.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is this situation parallel to that which applies in relation to glasses whereby buying them off the shelf may or may not help? Is there any question of hearing aids being harmful? Do customers have any protection under the Trade Descriptions Act if they lose their money?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I understand that appliances are more likely to be useless rather than dangerous. If a product is purchased which is clearly unsuitable for the purposes for which it is intended, customers will be able to get their money back. Ultimately there is the sanction of the criminal law.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, as the Royal National Institute for the Deaf has been mentioned, I should state that I am president of that body, although I am not paid. Is the Minister aware that the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, is quite wrong: the hearing aids provided by the health service are not the best in the world? But that is a different question which I promise the Minister I shall raise again in a few weeks.

The Minister mentioned the advertising code of practice. Some of those unscrupulous advertisers are too clever for that. They get round it by manipulating the language. Therefore, that is no real answer. I hope that the Minister will reflect and perhaps return with a different answer, perhaps by letter.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we must be clear that the British code of advertising practice is interpreted according to the spirit and not the letter of what it contains. It has a very wide scope. As regards hearing aids, I understand that an improved range of National Health Service hearing aids will be available from 1st April.

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