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Volume 449: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2006

The Department does not collect waiting times for hearing aid fittings. We aim to deliver audiology diagnostic tests within 13 weeks by March 2007, and within six weeks by December 2008.

I am sure that the Minister has spoken to many people who now have digital hearing aids, who will have told him how tremendously their quality of life and that of their families has improved. Why are hearing aids not subject to the waiting time targets that apply to other health care provision?

We want to maintain a situation in which most patients are referred directly by GPs to audiology departments, not consultants, and we do not want to create a position that would distort that practice. However, there are genuine challenges and problems with waiting times in certain parts of the country, which is why the Department will be working with stakeholders such as the Royal National Institute for Deaf People to produce an action plan to improve waiting times across the country, rather than have the unacceptable standards that apply in some parts of the country.

This happens all the time. One tables a perfectly straightforward question, and the Minister answers another. Is not the answer to my question, as it appears on the Order Paper, “None”?

May I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman forwarded his questions by e-mail he might get a more satisfactory response? He should note that the £125 million invested in the programme for modernising hearing aid services has been warmly welcomed by people who have benefited tremendously from digital hearing aids, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said. I also have to say that Conservative Members did not vote for that £125 million expenditure on the modernisation programme.

Does the Minister acknowledge that, in addition to the long waiting lists for fitting—more than a year in my primary care trust area—and additional waits for diagnostic tests, there is a large legacy problem of analogue hearing aids that need to be replaced by digital aids in the course of time? What would be a realistic time frame for clearing the large backlog of commitments, which in so many cases are long awaited?

I entirely agree that that issue must be taken seriously. It must form an inherent part of the action plan that we take forward, which will include a number of issues as well as that one. Other issues are increasing demand, inadequate capacity, work force skills and competencies, and the fact that we do not yet have sufficient focus on modern technology. Our action plan will address the remaining obstacles and ensure that people all over the country have access to the quality treatment that they deserve.

In my constituency, residents are waiting 15 months after their tests before they receive their hearing aids. Given that there is an 18-week target, that is clearly unacceptable. I wonder whether it would be possible to seek a reciprocal agreement with European countries. I am told that in Denmark hearing aids are cheaper and arrive more quickly. Some people are going over there to get their hearing aids, to avoid the waiting lists here. In Luxembourg, too, it is possible to—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. At one point I thought that we were having a discussion on the Eurovision song contest—[Hon. Members: “No!”]—not that anyone in the House is going to admit to watching that. The hon. Lady raises a serious issue, and if, as we develop the action plan, I can learn from international best practice, particularly where there are successes and achievements of better waiting times, I shall attempt to do so and incorporate it into this country’s approach to the problem.

Like me, 10 per cent. of British adults—5 million people—suffer from chronic tinnitus, and 1 per cent.—500,000 people—suffer so badly that it impacts severely on their quality of life. Will the Minister confirm whether audiology services for tinnitus, which are not necessarily linked with digital hearing aids, but often provide advice about therapeutic treatment to tackle the problem, are adequately catered for by the NHS? Many advances have been made in other areas of audiology, but this remains somewhat of a Cinderella service.

I would be delighted to give my hon. Friend an assurance that part of the action plan will be to look into the problem of tinnitus. I know that it can be a horrendous condition that adversely affects people’s quality of life and undermines their daily functioning. We should take it extremely seriously, and I confirm my commitment to my hon. Friend that as part of our action plan, we will look specifically into the advice and support that tinnitus sufferers receive.

What advice can the Minister give to my constituent, Mr. Sapsford, who has been waiting for five months for an audiology test? He has been told that he is not a priority because he is not over 90 years old, he is not receiving a war pension and he is not blind. My local trust cannot cope with the level of demand with the current level of staff. If the Secretary of State would consider allowing our trust to recover its budget deficit over the next two or three years, instead of in the current year, it might not have to make those cuts in essential services to patients.

During my responses today, I have frankly acknowledged the difficulties and challenges in certain parts of the country, including the hon. Lady’s constituency, but I hope that she will be equally honest with her constituents and tell them that time and again when we have debated the amount of resources that we should invest in the NHS, the party that she represents in this House has voted against that investment—so the situation could be considerably worse.

This is an important issue for people throughout the UK. What is the Minister doing to establish best practice between the UK Government and devolved Administrations? Does he agree that it is strange to hear oppositionist tones from the Liberal Democrats on this subject when in Scotland, they are in government?

Frankly, I am not surprised to hear that the Liberal Democrats are saying one thing in Scotland and something entirely different in England. In my experience in my constituency, they say one thing in one ward and something else in a neighbouring ward.

The Minister’s admission that there are difficulties in this area is to be welcomed, because many—including the 33,000 patients who have to wait longer than a year for an audiology test—would otherwise have considered his written statement today on audiology services complacent. Does he accept that the Government’s decision to exclude direct referrals from the 18-week time target, while including referrals made through ear, nose and throat consultants, raises the spectre of a two-tier NHS, in which the articulate and better-off will be able to ask to be referred through an ENT consultant in order to receive a hearing aid within 18 weeks, while those who do not know how the system works will have to wait far longer for their hearing aid? Does the Minister believe that that represents equitable access for all, including the 56 per cent. of patients in his local strategic health authority who have to wait longer than 26 weeks?

The whole purpose of the action plan is to ensure that we have equitable access and that the best practice in some areas—for example, the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, my local trust, which has zero waiting time for such services—is replicated all over the country. We need to ensure that we do not have a two-tier system. However, including direct referrals in the 18-week target would have led to a perverse incentive that we do not want to encourage. We want to continue the situation in which the vast majority of people go directly from their GP to audiology departments. Anyway, we want to see more such treatment provided in the community rather than in hospital in the future. Acknowledging the existence of challenges and issues and committing ourselves to producing an action plan is a responsible way to tackle that serious issue.