HC Deb 31 March 1930 vol 237 cc1035-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Parkinson.]


I desire to raise the question of the position of pharmacists in Poor Law hospitals, as it is affected by the Draft Poor Law Order which has been published by the Ministry of Health, and which, I believe, is now called the Public Assistance Order, 1930. May I, in the first place, apologise to the House for having to raise this question on a night on which it is quite impossible for the Minister of Health to be in his place? He was good enough to tell me that he would very much have liked to be here; but we are sure that the hon. Lady, the Parliamentary Secretary, will be able to give us a lucid reply, which, we hope, will satisfy us all.

The pharmacists are very much concerned about this Order, because they naturally feel that the status of the members of their profession who are employed in Poor Law hospitals will be very seriously jeopardised. The members of this profession have to pass a difficult examination, and the public is under a great debt to them on account of their great skill and their devotion to public duty. May I say that we are not raising this question in any party spirit? It is a question which concerns all parties in this Chamber and we do not want to embarrass the Government in general or the Minister of Health in particular. I will try to put my arguments as moderately as I can, because I think that we have an overwhelming case. The practice of appointment has varied. In some local authorities pharmacists are principal officers, and in many cases they are subordinate officers. The practice in the past has been that whether or not a pharmacist is a principal officer has depended on the local authority. We can claim that there are many local authoties who have made pharmacists principal officers. I have a few here as examples. In the Shoreditch Infirmary, the Saint Pancras Dispensary, and the Saint John's Road, Islington, Dispensary, pharmacists are principal officers. When we are talking about whether a pharmacist is sufficiently high up in the scale to be a principal officer, we may be quite convinced of the suitability of pharmacists being principal officers, when we know that the hon. Member for South Battersea (Mr. Bennett) is an ex-pharmacist. He raised the question on 5th December, and the Minister of Health replied that the tendency was for the central authority not to interfere with the local authorities in regard to their powers over their local officers.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being present


I was saying that on 5th December the Minister of Health, replying to the hon. Member for South Battersea, said that in view of the growing tendency to leave the Poor Law and other local authorities the widest possible discretion in the control of their officers, he was not prepared to take action in the direction of imposing closer central control over those authorities, more especially in view of the changes which were bound to take place. I am satisfied that that reply was a reasonable one, and that the pharmacists were satisfied with the spirit of it. Unfortunately, this new Order has rather altered the aspect of the matter. We realise that the present officers of the board of guardians will keep their status, but we fear that under the new Order, as the terms of appointment will depend on the new Order, the status of the pharmacists will very seriously be affected. Clause 144 shows who are to be the principal officers, and we are sorry to see that pharmacists have been omitted. Clause 145, which will be 144 under the final draft, says that only persons holding offices mentioned in Clause 144 can be principal officers, or, in other words, that pharmacists are now excluded. We see that the Minister is going contrary to the answer which he gave to the question of the hon. Member for South Battersea, because he is deliberately saying to the local authorities, "You shall not in future be allowed to make a pharmacist a principal officer."

The pharmacists are not raising this question on a matter of salary, but simply on a matter of status. The comparable service is that of the Navy. The Navy has pharmacists, and the superintendent pharmacist and the senior pharmacist are in the Navy List entitled to have the designation "esquire" after their names. The reason why that provision is made is that they are of equal rank with schoolmasters and the medical officers in the Navy. In the voluntary hospitals of this country the pharmacists are independent officers in charge of their own department. We say that if the Navy thinks that it is necessary to give this status, and the voluntary hospitals give the status, the status ought to be given by the local authorities. We do not ask that the Minister shall compel the local authorities to give the same status for pharmacists. We only ask that the local authorities shall themselves be allowed to decide whether they will do so or not.

I think that is a very modest request to make, and I do not think it will be much good for the Parliamentary Secretary to say that by granting this request they are increasing the control of the Ministry, because if they make the pharmacist a principal officer they cannot dismiss him without the consent of the Minister. If that excuse is to be made I do not think it is a valid one, because under this new Order they are making many people principal officers who have never been principal officers before. They are making the steward a principal officer, they are making a principal nurse in an institution where there are more than 100 beds a principal officer. Surely it is wrong to say they will let these be made principal officers and not allow a pharmacist in a Poor Law institution to be made a principal officer. Many of these Poor Law hospitals which have been transferred are very important hospitals, which will compare in importance with other hospitals. For instance, the North Middlesex Hospital has 1,024 beds, the Hackney Hospital 798 beds, the Bermondsey Hospital 687 beds, and the Bethnal Green Hospital 650 beds. We do not say that in all these hospitals you must make the pharmacists principal officers. We only ask that the Ministry should allow the local authorities to make the pharmacist a principal officer if they want to do so. We are not demanding more control. We are simply demanding that these matters should be left in the hands of the local authorities, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health will be able to meet us.


If that is all, I can answer in one word—Yes. Prior to 1904, with a few exceptions, pharmacists employed by boards of guardians never had the status of principal officers. The exceptions were dispensers for the outdoor poor appointed under the Metropolitan Dispensaries Order of 22nd April, 1871, or under Special Orders, and, in one or two cases only, dispensers at workhouses appointed under Special Orders. In 1904, the then Local Government Board decided that pharmacists employed by boards of guardians were not to be reckoned as principal officers. When it came to the change which took place under the Local Government Act, so far as the Order was concerned, no change whatever was made in the Order relating to the institutions. That was done becase it was considered better that the local authorities should discuss what modifications might be needed in this old accumulation of Orders when the new authorities were in existence, and that the new authorities should decide the form of such modifications. This is not a new Order. It is an old Order reissued and reprinted, and nothing more. There is no modification of substance. The only modification is the change of the words "boards of guardians" to the words "county council" or "borough council." The Order which I hold in my hand has not been modified except the verbal modifications necessitated by the change in the names of the new authorities. Article 143 is the old Article which has been issued a great number of times. The word "pharmacist" does not appear in any Order issued since the Local Government Board gave its decision in 1904. These are not new Orders. There is nothing fresh in them. They are old Orders re-issued, and pharmacists did not find a place in any Order, except a few old special Orders, prior to 1904. If local authorities desire that a pharmacist should be a chief officer they can recommend the matter to the Minister and discuss it with him, and can even appoint him as chief officer before the Minister examines the question. We do not interfere with a desire on the part of the local authority to have a pharmacist as chief officer. This assurance was given to the local authority by the previous Government that any amendment or modification with regard to superior officers should not be made until after consultation with the authorities. If any amendment is desired, it can be made subject to consultation with the local authorities. We have changed nothing. We have not made it impossible for them to be so appointed. In these matters, as in every other, we have left the position as it was, for consultation with the new authorities.


I should like to congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend on having raised this matter. Every Member of the House will agree that when a large body of men like this desire to bring their case before the House of Commons they should have the right to do so, and I much resent the action which was taken by hon. Members opposite in trying to prevent the case of the pharmacists being put before the House of Commons. I was all the more surprised when the Parliamentary Secretary departed from the Chamber in order to prevent a quorum being formed, and I hope the pharmacists of the country will notice her action in the matter. She had a perfectly proper case to put from the Ministry of Health, and I do not know why she took that course. It is a great pity that a body of men like the pharmacists, when they come to the House of Commons in order to put their case, should not have a reasonable reply given to them. I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend on having raised this matter and I am glad that the reply has been given. Speaking for myself, I resent very much the action taken by the Parliamentary Secretary in endeavouring to prevent the subject being raised to-night.


Anyone who has been, as I have been, a pharmacist and dispenser under the Poor Law in a large infirmary knows the responsibilities which these men have, and when it is a question of their professional status they fee] very much indeed the position of being subordinate officers of these hospitals. The Parliamentary Secretary is mistaken in saying that no change has been introduced by these draft Orders. Some stewards were principal officers and some pharmacists were principal officers. Another Order has been brought in making all stewards principal officers, and that is a considerable difference. Our people are of opinion that unless this is put into the draft Order there is little chance at all that it will come from the local authorities. We think we shall have the sympathy of all hon. Members in asking that justice should be done to these men and that this opportunity should be taken for promising that an amendment will be made in the draft Orders giving these men this status. It will cost nothing and everyone knows what a difference it makes to a man's self-esteem when he is in a position of subordinate or principal officer of an infirmary. I have had this experience myself. The tightening up of the Poison Acts and the Dangerous Drugs Act has made the position of the pharmacist and dispenser in a hospital one of considerable responsibility, and I think that the least we can do is to give this recognition.


I imagine that most of us have welcomed the statement of the Parliamentary Secretary that local authorities are able to appoint pharmacists as principal officers. In view of the uncertainty which exists about the position, both among pharmacists and local authorities, is the Parliamentary Secretary prepared to issue a Circular to local authorities making it perfectly clear that pharmacists can be appointed as principal officers?


I think there is some misunderstanding about this matter. I have said that there is nothing to prevent local authorities appointing phar- macists, within certain limits. I think the local authorities are perfectly well aware of the position. These Orders are not new Orders. They are not re-issued Orders in the real sense of the term. They are old Orders with a change in name, which is necessary according to changed conditions. They have been changed in that way, after a specific assurance to the local authorities that no great change would take place without consultation.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.