In 2018, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence issued new guidance called “Hearing loss in adults: assessment and management”, which aims to improve hearing loss services, including the provision of hearing aids. The guidance brings together evidence, standards, guidance and case studies to encourage best practice across England.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we in England have been cutting waiting times for hearing aids by using private companies such as Specsavers, and that that demonstrates a huge difference between privatising the NHS, which this Conservative party would never, ever support, and using private companies to provide a first-rate health service free at the point of use?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. We are absolutely committed to the principle of an NHS that is free at the point of use, but the NHS has, under successive Governments, commissioned care from the private sector to ensure that patients receive the treatment that they need as quickly, safely and near to home as possible. All NHS healthcare, irrespective of how it is provided, must be of the highest possible quality and improve outcomes.
When the Government published their action plan on hearing loss in 2015, it was widely welcomed across the deaf community, as well as in the House, but there is now just a sense in the deaf community that NHS England’s commitment to the action plan is somehow waning. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are still fully committed to the action plan and will also encourage NHS England to carry on?
Yes absolutely; I can give the hon. Gentleman that clear reassurance, and I thank him for his work as chair of the all-party group on deafness.
The Minister will recall that in the loneliness strategy we showcased Action on Hearing Loss’s “Hear to Meet” befriending service, which connects those with hearing impairments to share experiences. Alongside the work that the Department is doing to provide good-quality hearing aids, what more is it doing to recognise that those with hearing loss, especially children, can be among the most lonely in society?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right to highlight the fact that any form of disability can cause social isolation and loneliness, but hearing loss and deafness can do so almost more than anything else. I pay massive tribute to the incredible work that she did as Minister for sport and civil society to further this. I am a keen member of the inter-ministerial group on hearing loss, which does so much to further that aim and aspiration.
The hon. Lady is absolutely to raise that. CCGs are responsible for the commissioning of NHS audiology services, including the provision of hearing aids. We expect all CCGs to have regard to the NICE clinical guidance when commissioning services for their local population.
With the Sheffield Children’s Hospital last night, I was reminded again that in childhood, dreams are made and die are cast, and through our senses, we come to terms with the world around us. As Dickens said, the best of all stories is a child’s story. Sometimes those stories are not happy ones initially, and deaf children in particular struggle and suffer as they come to terms with the world about them. Will the Minister ensure that every deaf child in Lincolnshire has not only an education, health and care plan, but all the innovations and technology that allow them to live their life to the full and cast a future as glorious as any of ours?
I certainly could not have put that more articulately than my right hon. Friend did, and he is absolutely right. In 2018, the Government provided contracts worth more than £25 million to help children with special educational needs and disability to access the right support. The Department for Education is reviewing the SEND commitment within that Department, but we are supporting it to do that in the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that children get the care and support and educational support plans that they need.
We all noted the reference to Dickens; I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman’s record of literary and philosophical allusions continues apace.
I thank the Minister for the response so far. Will she outline what discussions have taken place with independent groups such as Specsavers, which does excellent work providing wider access to NHS-funded tests and hearing aids, with special reference to more rural areas?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this. As I said in my first answer, it is important that we can work collaboratively with organisations in the private sector and across the NHS to make sure that patients, wherever they are in the country, in urban or rural areas, can access the right care and support when they need it.
If the Minister and other Members want to find out how to provide a phenomenal audiology service, they should come to Dudley and visit the clinical CCG buildings at Brierley Hill. It is an amazing service. When I was referred to them for a hearing aid, I could not believe the service. You ring up and say “When can I come in?”, and they say “When would you like to come in?” “Could I come in tomorrow?” “What time would you like to arrive?”—no waiting lists, an absolutely phenomenal service. I was worried—
I call the Minister.
I don’t know about you, Mr Speaker, but I could listen to the hon. Gentleman talk all day. He is absolutely right to commend the wonderful services provided by the team in Dudley. I would be more than happy to visit at any time.