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Optical Appliances (Blind And Partially Sighted Persons) Bill

Volume 127: debated on Friday 12 February 1988

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Order for Second Reading read.

2.21 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the Bill in the time that remains. When one draws No. 11 in the ballot one has to choose between a spectacularly controversial Bill that will be thrown out on Second Reading, or one that is rather more modest, has an opportunity to be discussed and might perhaps even reach Committee. My Bill falls into the latter category. It is modest but well worth while and should be of considerable assistance to those who are affected by it.

I say "my Bill" but I should begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who presented a similar but unsuccessful Bill early last year. I also acknowledge the considerable assistance that I have had from the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which is especially interested in the Bill and which has supplied me with a great deal of background information.

The RNIB estimates that there are about 300,000 registered blind and partially-sighted people in the United Kingdom. Of those, only a small percentage—about 4 per cent.—are totally blind. The remaining 96 per cent. have some perception of light and some residual vision, but are so blind as to be unable to perform any work for which sight is essential. That is the definition in the National Assistance Act 1948 that has to be met before a person can be registered as blind. The Bill would provide spectacles and optical appliances free of charge to those who would benefit from them—and that is about 50 per cent. of people who are registered as blind and partially sighted.

I suppose that the first thought that springs to the minds of Ministers is how much it will cost. Originally, I intended to leave that until the end of my speech, but, because of the shortage of time, I shall deal with it now. The best estimates that those of us who are interested in the Bill could arrive at, after discussion and looking at figures, was that it would cost about £1 million per annum to carry out the Bill's provisions. Standing on its own, £1 million is quite a sum, but, when measured against the total budget under the Minister's command, it is seen to be tiny.

For the last two months I have had the singular pleasure and honour of chairing the Committee examining the Health and Medicines Bill. I do not propose to discuss what has been happening in the Committee, except to say that the estimates of the revenue that will arise from the charges to be introduced for optical testing and dental inspection is between £70 million and £100 million. It has, I think, been agreed in Committee that the money would find its way back into the Health Service. From that £100 million, £1 million might surely be spared to meet the costs of this Bill.

The blind and partially sighted are hit in two ways. First, the optical appliances that they need are more complex than those normally worn by the rest of us, and the lenses are therefore rather more expensive. In addition, the frames that have to carry the heavier lenses have to be sturdier than those normally required.

Secondly, because of their disability, the visually handicapped are often employed in poorly-paid jobs. It is estimated that 50 per cent. of visually handicapped people in work —perhaps, indeed, the figure is nearer 75 per cent.—have such low incomes that they do not pay income tax. There is, of course, a voucher scheme, which I believe is working pretty well, and the Ministers share my point of view.

The other day, I put a question to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, asking if the Secretary of State would carry out an early review of the voucher system. The hon. Lady replied that the system had been a great success. However, she said,
"In the White Paper 'Promoting Better Health,' we said that we would give special consideration to the voucher values for those with the poorest sight." —[Official Report, 9 February 1988; Vol 127, c. 168.]
A helping hand is being extended to those whom I am trying to help in my Bill, and I welcome it. If the Bill does not reach the statute book, it will at least have raised a question and Ministers will try to act when they carry out their review.

In many cases, the vouchers provided are insufficient to meet the costs of a new pair of glasses. Let me give some examples that have been reported to the Royal National Institute for the Blind:
"a pair of new glasses costing £61–85 of which £12·75 was accounted for by frames. Client eligible for a £27 voucher for low power bifocals. Shortfall of £34·85."
That was a considerable sum for the person involved. Here is another example:
"visually handicapped client registered as partially sighted … needed slightly more expensive frames (£29) to hold weight of lenses (£60·60). Eligible for voucher for £33".
The shortfall, therefore, was £46·60.

I could give a number of other examples. However, it is clear that the vouchers, flexible and welcome as they are in allowing those who need glasses to shop around, are not sufficient to meet the needs of the people of whom I speak.

The Bill covers not only those who are eligible for vouchers, but all who are registered as blind and partially sighted. The RNIB believes…and I share its view—that, just as wheelchairs are provided for all who need them and hearing aids are provided for all who are hard of hearing — whether or not they are poor — special optical appliances should be supplied by the Health Service to all who need them. Of course, if people want something more elaborate, they can pay for that themselves. However, all people who need the appliances, not just those who are very poor, should be supplied with them.

2.30 pm

The hon. Gentleman was not as lucky—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 4 March.