27 Feb 1995 : Column 1299

House of Lords

Monday, 27th February 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Hearing Aids: Mail Order Selling

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

27 Feb 1995 : Column 1300

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

27 Feb 1995 : Column 1301

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.

NIREX Rock Characterisation Facility

2.46 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are the terms of reference for the public inquiry into the NIREX rock characterisation facility.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, the Secretary of State for the Environment has today issued, under the provisions of Rule 6(10) of the Town and Country Planning (Inquiries Procedure) Rules 1992, a statement of the matters about which he particularly wishes to be informed for the purpose of his consideration of the appeal by NIREX against Cumbria County Council's refusal of planning permission. I have arranged for details of the statement to be circulated in the Official Report and for a copy of it to be placed in the Library.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that helpful reply. Will the Government make sure that all the points raised by Cumbria County Council are open to discussion? Secondly, will they also ensure that all questions raised by the Royal Society report—The disposal of

27 Feb 1995 : Column 1302

radioactive waste in deep repositories—of November 1994 on the evaluation of the NIREX scientific programme will be considered by the public inquiry?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the list of issues about which the Secretary of State wishes to be informed for the purposes of the consideration of the appeal is not a straitjacket. It does not prevent other matters being raised at the inquiry, such as those put forward by Cumbria County Council. It is for the inquiry's inspector to decide on their relevance and whether he should permit evidence to be called on other matters.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that that will be a public inquiry in the full sense of the term and that there will be no restrictions?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page