HL Deb 13 February 2003 vol 644 cc812-4

3.6 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What arrangements there are, and what finance will be made available, for the roll-out across the country of the programme to introduce digital hearing aids for National Health Service patients.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, £94 million has now been made available to ensure that a modernised service providing digital hearing aids will be available from all NHS hearing aids services in England by 2005. All services not yet involved in the project are now being invited to apply for modernisation in 2003–04 or 2004–05.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I declare an interest as a digital hearing aid user. I thank the Minister for that reply which will greatly encourage the largest, and, until now, among the most neglected and excluded, groups of disabled people in the country. Will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have to ensure that the roll-out of the programme will be sustained well beyond the three-year period? Will he assure the House that after that period eligibility will not, as so often, depend on one's postcode? Will the pilots conducted in Shrewsbury and Leeds, whereby private hearing aid dispensers worked in partnership with NHS audiology departments, be part of the three-year roll-out programme across England?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the pilots are not yet completed although preliminary results suggest that involving the private sector can be worth while. We shall need to evaluate the pilots before deciding how to take forward the policy. At the end of the rollout period we expect those services to be appropriately funded by primary care trusts. I fully expect the services to be continued. I certainly accept that. traditionally, this has not been a good area of NHS provision in terms of service and quality. However, I believe that the advances made in the past two years, and those which will be made over the next three years, are significant.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, the Minister's announcement is welcome news. However, we should be clear that congratulations are due to the RNID which has fought a sustained campaign over a number of years to persuade the Government of the benefits of digital hearing aids. It took a long time to persuade the Government of the merits of the case. Has the Minister taken into account the need to apply the lessons that have been learnt in this area over the past few years to other areas of the NHS as regards introducing modern equipment?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord is as churlish as ever with regard to what I consider has been an extremely positive announcement and development. I certainly pay tribute to the RNID. Not only has it been a very effective campaigning organisation, but it has also teamed up with the National Health Service procurement agency to negotiate much lower cost digital hearing aids. I give all credit to the RNID for that. More generally, I believe that this service signals a really significant improvement in provision for those with hearing loss. We have received tremendous support for that.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this is an occasion for genuine congratulations? The fact that every deaf and hard-of-hearing person in Britain will have a digital hearing aid within two years—aids that cost £2,000 before—is a phenomenal achievement. The Government deserve warm congratulations. Does he further agree that the people who deserve most credit are James Strachan and David Livermore, the former chief executive and chairman of RNID, and Alan Milburn, my noble friend's own Secretary of State'? This action will do more for deaf people than any single thing in the past 50 years. It is a great achievement.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I always find it useful to pay tribute to my own boss. I am happy to endorse everything that my noble friend said, save only that he was very modest about his own achievement, which was absolutely pivotal.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the Minister give due acknowledgement to the Post Office engineering department which, in my early days at the Ministry of Health, was responsible for the initial development of the first proper hearing aid?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not quite go back as far as that, but I am happy to add my congratulations to those mentioned by my noble friend.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the programme is indeed very welcome, but can the Minister reassure me that enough technicians will be available to implement it over the next couple of years?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, there is no doubt that that is a real challenge. That is partly why we have rolled out the programme over a number of years. We are taking action to deal with the issue of shortages. We have supported the introduction of a new degree course, and that will raise the number of qualified audiologists in the longer term. In the shorter term, we are looking at skill-mix issues to see whether technicians can take on more responsibility. As suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, we are also looking at ways in which we can co-operate with the private sector.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

My Lords, given the importance of hearing to speech development, will the Minister reassure us that paediatric services currently have the new technology available? A two-year wait in a child's development might mean that he or she misses out on crucial aspects of speech development.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I certainly understand the need for speed in the area, and that it is particularly important for children. The roll-out is deliberately timed to make sure that the NHS is able to cope with the extra demands placed on it. I will look into the matter that the noble Baroness has raised, but I think it important that there is a phased introduction.