GOC considers illegal practice

A draft protocol on illegal practice was discussed at the latest meeting of the General Optical Council


The best way to tackle illegal practice within the optical sector was under the spotlight at the latest meeting of the General Optical Council (22 September).

The GOC considered a draft protocol on illegal practice, which will provide guidance on when the optical regulator will open an investigation following a report of alleged illegal practice as well as when the GOC will consider prosecution.

The Council agreed to submit the draft protocol for public consultation in October.

Introducing the document to the meeting, GOC lawyer, Claire Bond, highlighted that the protocol provides clarity on when the GOC will take action.

“We want to be more proactive in our approach to illegal practice,” she said.

The GOC has drafted assessment criteria so that only complaints about alleged offences under the Opticians Act 1989 are accepted and other complaints are redirected.

Some complaints may be more appropriately dealt with by other bodies, such as the Advertising Standards Authority, while others could be addressed through fitness to practise procedures.

Bond noted that test purchases may be carried out at the investigation stage of an illegal practice complaint after a cease and desist letter has been sent.

If the threshold for prosecution is met, then this test purchase may be used as evidence.

Following public consultation on the draft protocol, the GOC aims to implement a revised version of the protocol, taking into account feedback, next year.

GOC Council member, Sinead Burns, shared her support for the document but questioned how the process would work where reports of illegal practice relate to suppliers outside of the UK.

GOC director of casework and resolutions, Dionne Spence, replied that the GOC does not have jurisdiction to take action on overseas sales, adding that the optical regulator would follow a ‘buyer beware’ strategy.

“If we can stop sales on the main online platforms, the buyer will be more cautious,” she said.

Bond added that many reports of alleged illegal practice are outside the scope of the Opticians Act 1989, while there are logistical and practical challenges in restricting overseas sellers.

The focus of the GOC will instead be on engaging with providers and those who have the power to stop sales, Bond highlighted.

“We have to be realistic about what is within our gift,” she said.

GOC Council member, Frank Munro, noted that many of the people who buy zero power contact lenses over the counter are not existing contact lens customers.

“They are young people; they are emmetropic and healthy,” he emphasised.

Munro shared the importance of addressing public ignorance around the risks of improper use of contact lenses.

“We should be bolting on another public awareness campaign about the risks of buying products online that have not been verified as safe,” he said.

GOC Council member, David Parkins, observed that his experience working in a hospital contact lens clinic has given him insight into the level of public awareness around contact lens risks.

“I see patients who re-use daily disposable contact lenses. They don’t change their solutions as often as they should and there is risky use of tap water,” he said.

Parkins shared the importance of gathering data from hospital eye departments to support public health messages around contact lens hygiene and the dangers of illegal practice.

“There must be a wealth of data in hospitals throughout the UK…The consequences for these patients are huge. Sight loss is part of that,” he said.

Concluding the discussion, GOC chief executive, Lesley Longstone, noted that the current protocol is focused on illegal practice within the current legal framework in the context of existing evidence.

“While the scope of this piece of work is the here and now, we absolutely want to hear about evidence and data for what the legislation should look like in the future,” she said.