I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the establishment of a Hearing Aids Council to register firms engaged in retail selling of hearing aids, to advise on the training of salesmen and audiological technicians, and to regulate trade practices.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to others who serve the House for acting as a sort of human hearing aid in the absence of the 625 pairs of ears with which I hope to communicate during the next 10 minutes. As is known, I have a hearing disability and, therefore, I have an interest to declare as one of the consumers of this service.
In seeking consumer protection for this comparatively small disability, but one which nevertheless affects a large number of people, I want to make it clear that the Bill that I seek to introduce is not directed against the reputable and ethical firms which deal in hearing aids and whose record is extremely good. I am seeking to establish protection against those which are not within the same code of practice as is adopted by the ethical firms.
I pay tribute in particular to one firm—Multitone—whose trade practice, service and the way in which it is able to give a considerable amount of advice and free demonstration to its customers is beyond reproach. Other members of the Hearing Aid Manufacturers and Suppliers Association operate a code of practice which gives guidance on the rules of advertising. These things, however, good as they are, are operated only on a voluntary basis through a joint advisory co-ordinating committee of the Hearing Aid Manufacturers and Suppliers Association, which represents of necessity only the interests of the trade. The consumer is not represented.
The Bill which I wish to introduce provides for a Hearing Aids Council to be set up by the Minister of Health. On that Council, not only the trade associations and firms would be represented, but also the organisations which care for the welfare of the deaf, representatives of public bodies and representatives of the training bodies which deal with audiological technicians. The Bill would have to contain a Schedule, which, naturally, could be discussed in Committee, but the principle which I seek to introduce is that the majority control should be in the hands of the non-trade members—that is, the consuming public—and that the chairman should not be part of the trade machinery.
The purpose of the Council would be to establish and maintain a register, which would provide for the fact that only those firms that were on the register could be permitted to offer, to sell, to provide and to fit hearing aids to the general public.
In the three months from April to July, 1965, the Royal National Institute for the Deaf had 27 new cases of complaint, roughly one every three days. These arise from a number of difficulties which are caused to people who have to wear a hearing aid. Inadequate trial periods are a quite common complaint. There is also the fact that after a deposit has been paid, a hearing aid proves unsatisfactory and there is difficulty in securing the return of the deposit, and sometimes after a hearing aid has been proved to be unsatisfactory the need for continuous service is difficult to satisfy.
So the Bill would provide for a code of practice to ensure that only properly tested aids would be sold and no aid would be sold to a person suffering from a hearing disability unless the customer had been advised by a qualified medical practitioner that such a hearing aid would be of some service to him.
There are two types of deafness. One is conductive deafness and the other perceptive. Conductive deafness means that sound is being blocked and not activating the hearing mechanism. Some marvellous operations have been performed including some new ones in the last few years and have opened up a new field, and where indicated and successfully performed have meant that a hearing aid is not needed, or that certainly it would be unfair to the customer to sell him one.
Perceptive deafness raises a different set of problems. It is an extremely difficult problem because a person may hear some tones but not others. I suppose every hon. Member has had experience with the elderly relative of whom it is said, "He can hear all right when he wants to". But he can hear some tones and cannot hear others. Sometimes a loud voice is more difficult to hear than a fairly soft one speaking with clarity.
So it is necessary that only an ear, nose and throat specialist should finally decide whether the expense of £60 or £70 or £80 is a justifiable expense on an aid, and in order that a person shall get the advice of the specialist a family doctor can give advice in the first case. No Medresco aid, issued through the National Health Service, is issued till a specialist has given approval.
The functions of the Council specified by the Bill would include care of proper training standards for audiological technicians; the vetting of advertisements; investigation of complaints; provision for disciplinary measures for those who contravene the rules and penalties to be enforced against those who do.
In my own disability I have learned that it is far easier to find sympathy for those who are blind than for those who are deaf, but deafness is a very difficult problem to cope with, and those who have to cope with it need all the help they can get. It needs a good deal of understanding, and I am afraid it needs quite a lot of education in order that people can best understand how to help people with hearing disability. In addition to this, there is need for the protection of the consumer, and although that is in a highly specialist field the number of people affected is large, especially as the population is growing and as the problems which come with longevity are becoming a typical part and parcel of everyday life.
For large numbers of people, therefore, this protection is urgently needed, and I hope the House will give me leave to bring in the Bill.