I join others in thanking the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. I congratulate him on providing a service to us all by securing so many debates on so many relevant issues. I concur with the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), that it is time for a national strategy; we have been calling for one for a while.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), I will talk about refractive surgery. I completely concur with the hon. Member for Strangford, and the general tone of the debate, about the need for longer-term, stable investment, and the worries that we all have about the postcode lottery in access to eyesight assessment, and services to tackle any problems that are identified. Part of the problem of the postcode lottery is that people who have concerns about their eyesight can become desperate and resort to alternative methodologies, one of which has been refractive surgery.
Refractive surgery is often successful, but there is always a risk. We are talking about both laser surgery and lens replacement, in larger numbers every year. It is a growing issue. Thousands upon thousands are receiving refractive surgery, basically from three main companies: Optical Express, Optimax, and Optegra. Tragically, of those thousands, many hundreds are now experiencing serious problems. They have failed to find a solution to their eyesight problems by turning to surgery, but in many instances have been harmed by the surgery itself.
I have been campaigning on this issue for over a decade. I have worked with other MPs and campaigners. We have had private Members’ Bills, ten-minute rule Bills and debates in the House. I pay tribute to the external campaigners. Sasha Rodoy from the My Beautiful Eyes Foundation has brought together literally hundreds of cases, providing people with support and exposing some of the appalling practices. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham referred to the GMC. There are specific examples of where the GMC guidelines are ignored, resulting in real harm. The guidelines basically say that the surgeon undertaking the surgery should meet the person who is to be operated on. There should be a proper assessment of their suitability for the surgery, and advice should then be provided.
Over the past decade, we are finding too many examples of where the assessment has been given largely by salespeople rather than clinically qualified staff. Often, the person will not see the surgeon until the day of surgery. Owing to the oligopoly of the companies involved, the pressure of meeting sales targets seems to be more important than achieving good outcomes for the clients or patients involved. Inadequate advice then leads to unsuitable judgments and people undergoing surgery that damages their eyesight.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham mentioned one tragic case, but there are so many others: paramedics who can no longer pursue their career; police officers who are unable to drive professionally any more; and, as hon. Members may have seen in the media, one health worker who took his own life as a result of the distress.
When things go wrong, the companies often deny responsibility. Sometimes they accept that they need to do something, but they will often delay appointments with the surgeon beyond 12 months and then refuse to accept any responsibility, with people having to be sent off to the NHS for treatment. I want to raise the same issue with the Minister as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. It would be really helpful if we ensured that the NHS collated the information about the work it has to undertake and the investment it has to put in to correct the damage and harm caused by those private companies. There was even one company that went into administration and therefore denied all responsibility and liability to patients, only for it to restructure itself and form a new company to continue providing the same services.
On the complaints, I have to say there have been numerous complaints to the GMC and the General Optical Council. Unfortunately, it is often judged that the case does not meet the seriousness threshold and therefore little or no action is taken by those bodies to regulate and monitor companies that are not abiding by basic guidelines. We have discovered that people are operating without being professionally qualified even in cases that are coming up this year. Those shocking examples demand a response now, after all these years.
I am happy to meet with the Minister or, as I know she is busy, with her colleagues and officials to talk through the review that needs to be undertaken into the operation of refractive surgery, as well as what needs to be done to improve regulation and to ensure that the harms caused by the operations largely being carried out by private companies are addressed and that people are supported in the very distressing situations they have found themselves in.