HC Deb 16 December 1981 vol 15 cc123-4W
Mr. Squire

asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether, in the light of the high cost of privately supplied spectacles, the Government will review the operation of the Opticians Act 1958 with regard to its effect on competition.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

The Government have for some time been aware of public concern at the high cost of private spectacles. Among possible factors leading to this high cost could be restrictions upon competition which arise as a result of provisions of the Opticians Act 1958. Under section 25 of this Act the General Optical Council may make rules regulating advertising and other means of publicity that may be employed by registered opticians. The Government welcome the recent change in its rules to permit opticians to display prices in their windows, but it remains to be seen what the effects of this change will be.

A more significant restriction arises from section 21 of the Act which restricts the sale of optical appliances to registered medical practitioners and registered opticians. Under the Fair Trading Act 1973 it is not possible for the Director General of Fair Trading to refer to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in appropriate terms the restrictions on competition arising from the statutory monopoly conferred by section 21. I have therefore, with the full agreeement of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health, asked the Director General to undertake such a review himself. His terms of reference are to assess the effects upon competition of (i) the statutory monopoly to sell optical appliances conferred by section 21 of the Opticians Act 1958 on registered medical practitioners and registered opticians and (ii) the rules of the General Optical Council made under section 25 thereof in so far as they relate to or affect the sale of such appliances.

The director has not been asked to come to any conclusion on whether the Act should be revised in any way since this would raise questions of public interest which go wider than the competition considerations to be dealt with by the review. The review will, however, provide a clearer picture of the ways in which the Act operates with regard to competition and, therefore, prices, and will assist the Government in considering whether any revision is called for.