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Spectacle Frame Prices

Volume 416: debated on Wednesday 21 January 1981

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2.45 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they now propose to encourage the reduction in the price of spectacle frames and to allow the sale over the counter of straightforward reading glasses.

My Lords, as noble Lords may already know, the optical profession's ruling body, the General Optical Council, decided in November to amend their statutory rules on publicity so that opticians may be allowed to display prices in their windows. Under the established procedure, revised regulations to bring the proposed amendments into force cannot be laid before Parliament until the approval of the Privy Council has been obtained. The General Optical Council expect to seek formal approval early in March. The Government consider that to allow the sale of reading glasses by unqualified persons without an eye examination would not be in the best interests of patients.

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that that Answer will be a great disappointment to a million people who buy simple reading glasses in this country, and who now pay an average of £40 or more per pair, whereas in America and other advanced countries the price is £5 or less? It will be remembered that this Government were elected to encourage competition and that for a third of a century the General Optical Council, through restrictive practices, has forbidden dispensing opticians to display prices. It is good news that this is now to be rescinded, belatedly. But could my noble friend not do more to encourage competition, and allow people who have collected their prescription from a qualified tester to take that prescription to any shop which could make up the glasses to meet their requirements?

My Lords, we have been into this matter on several occasions in the past, and the Government still stand by their view that they do not think that people should be able to buy glasses without an eye examination. I would say, however, that any sensible person who is liable to break his glasses has a spare pair and, if you do break your glasses, you can always go back within 12 months to your optician who has your prescription and get another pair of glasses.

My Lords, is it not the case that this Government were elected to further competition, and made very sympathetic noises on this matter when we all first raised it? Why are they now in retreat on this matter? Is it not possible that great savings would be made to the National Health Service, or, at least, significant savings, if people who have simple failing eyesight with age, as my own is, were able to buy off the peg, instead of having to buy through the Health Service? Would this not save a significant amount of money? Secondly, what will now happen if reputable companies put on sale glasses from Hong Kong over the counter? Are the Government going to prosecute them?

My Lords, to answer the first part of the noble Lord's question, competition will be helped by the display of prices. That will undoubtedly be helpful. My honourable friend the Minister of Health is engaged at the moment in discussing increasing the range of NHS glasses, which would also help. Although we are, of course, in favour of further competition, we have also to take into account the views of the medical profession.

My Lords, would the noble Lord answer me on prosecution? Is he actually going to prosecute firms who put these on sale?

My Lords, the position on that is that if somebody goes against the regulations of the General Optical Council and the Government, he would be likely to be prosecuted by the General Optical Council—not by the Government.

My Lords, can the Minister give the House any indication of when the Government are likely to be able to say when and in what way National Health Service spectacles will be improved? This is important. Several Governments, I admit, have said this over the years. In view of what the private practice sector is going to do, it is desirable that we should bring our own frames up to a much better quality and offer a wider choice.

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. This has been gone into for a very long time. It may be of interest to the House to know that yesterday my honourable friend the Minister of Health had meetings with opticians and the Ministry.

My Lords, in view of the fact that many people who wear glasses have one good eye and one defective eye, would it be possible for monocles to be prescribed on the National Health Service?

My Lords, do not the sheer force of logic and the highest medical opinion accept that there are two categories of optical aids: simple reading glasses or magnifiers for normal, healthy vision and, secondly, appliances for correcting, remedying and relieving defective vision? Any confusion or ambiguity between these two categories is at present leading to the wholesale exploitation of the nation's eyesight.

My Lords, the noble Lord appears to have made a statement rather than to have asked a question.

My Lords, would the noble Lord consider making available on the National Health Service a simple hand magnifying glass for reading which would obviate altogether the need for an optical examination and for spectacle frames?

My Lords, I will with pleasure pass on that suggestion to my right honourable friend.

My Lords, will my noble friend hear in mind that I was a member of an all-party delegation, led by Lord Rugby, which went to see the Minister? We had with us in that delegation Mr. Trevor-Roper, senior consultant at Moorfields Eye Hospital. It was made clear by him that no possible damage could be done to the eyesight of those people requiring reading glasses—and those are 95 per cent. of the glasses sold in this country. As this system operates for the 220 million people in the United States, who are very careful of their health, why cannot we have a little more liberty and prices a little lower?

My Lords, I had the pleasure of attending that meeting and I know perfectly well what Mr. Trevor-Roper had to say. However, I do not believe that everybody in his profession would agree with him.