Adjustable spectacles, only time will tell

In 2015, there was a proposed amendment to the Opticians Act 1989: a Private Members’ Bill to make provision for the sale of adjustable focus spectacles.

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Author: Daniel Hardiman-McCartney MCOptom, Clinical Adviser
Date: 28 June 2016

In 2015, there was a proposed amendment to the Opticians Act 1989: a Private Members’ Bill to make provision for the sale of adjustable focus spectacles. Lord Newby continues his mission to enable members of the public to be able to freely purchase spectacles which can be adjusted for each eye through a process of self-refraction; his bill states that these should only be used on a temporary basis until fixed focus prescription spectacles have been obtained and should not be sold to children.

The device which Lord Newby has been seen wearing while debating in the House of Lords was one which utilised the Alvarez two sliding lens system and is currently on sale for around €35 throughout Europe and the United States. These specific lenses have not been clinically tested for use in spectacles and carry a significant amount of cylindrical distortion, up to -1.00DC. It is important to note that ready-made reading glasses currently widely and cheaply available do not suffer from such cylindrical distortion, furthermore the adjustable device would not meet the current optical requirements of BS EN ISO 8980-1 which permit up to +/-0.12DC cylindrical distortion.  

Other theoretical adjustable focus technologies could include fluid filled, electrowetting or electroactive lenses which each have their own merits and disadvantages. These are without doubt exciting technologies, but despite some manufacturers’ claims, they are technologies which require more research to prove their safety and efficacy before there should be a change in the law to enable their sale. 

So how likely is Lord Newby’s Bill to become law? Private Members’ Bills range from those proposing far-reaching reform of fundamental areas of the law, to those which make small technical amendments to obscure areas of regulation. The vast majority of Private Members’ Bills fall by the wayside and never become law. However, some of the most significant pieces of legislation on the statute book started their life as a Private Members’ Bill, including the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act 1965, the Abortion Act 1967 and last but not least, the Opticians Act 1958. 

Lord Newby continues his mission to enable members of the public to be able to freely purchase spectacles which can be adjusted for each eye through a process of self-refraction...

How do Private Members’ Bills work? A Private Members’ Bill is a Bill introduced into Parliament by a member either of the House of Commons or House of Lords, acting in a personal capacity. Private Members’ Bills should be contrasted with Government Bills, which are Bills introduced by members of the government as part of their programme of legislation. The majority of successful legislation begins its life as a Government Bill. As the Government controls the Parliamentary timetable and prioritises the progress of their own legislative programme, Private Members’ Bills are seldom allocated sufficient time to proceed through the Parliamentary processes necessary to become law. An exception to this are Private Members’ Bills introduced as part of the Private Members’ Ballot, a process whereby backbench MPs may enter a lottery which ‘wins’ them a day’s debate on a Private Members’ Bill of their choice. ‘Ballot Bills’ are thus provided with time for debate and may gain traction and ultimately become law.  

As Lord Newby’s Bill has not been introduced through the Private Members’ Ballot, but through standard parliamentary processes, it will struggle to gain time for consideration. Private Members’ Bills are sometimes ‘adopted’ by the Government and allocated sufficient time to enable them to become law, but this depends upon convincing Ministers not only that the law regulating adjustable spectacles ought to be changed, but that the subject is of sufficient significance that it ought to be prioritised over competing demands on Parliamentary time.  Lord Newby commented in a blog post that there was a low likelihood that the bill would pass: “My Bill came only 33rd in the ballot, so stands relatively little chance of progressing. However, I intend to use it to put pressure on both the GOC and Government to change the law.” 

It is thus for the Government (and ultimately Parliament) to determine if Lord Newby’s Bill should proceed. However, it is difficult to argue that the evidence base at the current time demonstrates that the technologies either of self-refraction or adjustable glasses are proven to be sufficiently safe and effective to merit a change in the law. Safety and efficacy aside, whether the regulation of adjustable spectacles may be considered sufficiently important to be afforded priority at the expense of other issues at the forefront of voters’ minds, only time will tell.  

Useful links: 

General Optical Council, Policy and research papers: Adjustable focus spectacles

The Success of Private Members’ Bills (House of Commons Information Office, June 2010)

Daniel Hardiman-McCartney FCOptom
Clinical Adviser, The College of Optometrists

Daniel graduated from Anglia Ruskin University, where he won the Haag Strait prize for best dissertation. Before joining the College, he was Managing Director of an independent practice in Cambridge and a visiting clinician at Anglia Ruskin University. He has also worked as a senior glaucoma optometrist with Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, with Newmedica across East Anglia and as a diabetic retinopathy screening optometrist. Daniel was a member of Cambridgeshire LOC from 2007 to 2015 and a member of the College of Optometrists’ Council from 2009 to 2014, representing its Eastern region.  

He is Clinical Adviser to the College of Optometrists for four days each week, dividing the remainder of his time between primary care practice and glaucoma community clinics. Daniel is a passionate advocate of the profession of optometry, committed to supporting all members of the profession and ensuring patient care is always at the heart of optometry. He was awarded Fellowship by Portfolio in December 2018.

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