HC Deb 15 June 1933 vol 279 cc361-9

5.23 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 20, line 12, to leave out the words "engaged in" and to insert instead thereof the words "concerned with."

In Committee, the hon. Member for Wirrall (Dr. Clayton) drew attention to the fact that Clause 20 did not exempt such bodies as the Institute of Chemistry from the provisions of the Measure. This Amendment makes it clear that that Institute and similar Institutes concerned with scientific education or research are so exempted. It is, in the main, a drafting Amendment and will make the position in that respect quite clear.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

5.25 p.m.


This very important Bill, with 31 Clauses and two Schedules, has had very little discussion on the Floor of the House. The Second Reading was taken after one o'clock in the morning when hon. Members did not desire to keep the House sitting, and with the exception of a protest from the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Beaumont) nothing was said regarding it, and there was not even an introductory speech by the Minister in charge. I am sure that many hon. Members have like myself received protests from members of pharmacists' societies in their divisions protesting against the provisions of the Bill. I understand there are some thousands of registered chemists who are not members of the official society— memembership of which is voluntary—and who have not been consulted regarding the Bill. The Bill as it stands has been approved by the British Pharmaceutical Association but not by some of the other organisations, which include in their membership a large number of the registered chemists throughout the country. Those organisations ought to have been consulted before the Bill was introduced in its present form.

The Bill is divided into three parts. The first deals with the domestic affairs of the society which I have just mentioned. That however is not the most serious part of the Measure. Part II deals with the dispensing and distribution of poisons, and that is, to us, the most important part. Once the public realise what is being done by the Bill especially in Part II they will look upon it with a certain amount of dismay. The proposal of the Bill is to increase instead of restrict the sale of poisons. That was plainly put by the Under-Secretary in Committee. Replying to a question by the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Law-son) the right hon. Gentleman said: The hon. Member, I think, does Act understand the position. The object of the Bill is to give people who are not now entitled to sell poisons the opportunity of selling them"— He added, it is true, these words— in the interests of the public. It will give ironmongers and grocers a better opportunity to sell poisons than they have at present."—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Standing Committee A), Tuesday, 9th May; cols. 29 and 30.] We look upon this extension of the sale of poisons with a good deal of apprehension. We think the Bill ought to restrict and not increase these facilities. Further, there are certain very obnoxious poisons which may be brought in under Part II of the Bill and which traders such as ironmongers and grocers will have an opportunity of selling. The Bill proposes the repeal of all existing legislation dealing with the sale of poisons except the Dangerous Drugs Acts. The Arsenic Act of 1851 in its entirety and the Pharmacy Acts of 1868 to 1908, in so far as they deal with poisons, are to go. The time- honoured poisons schedules are also to be abolished together with the legal distinction, and the object of the Bill is clearly as stated by the Minister in Committee. How far are these extended facilities going to affect the public? There must be some 10,000 pharmacists in the country, and one would have imagined that those pharmacists with their distributive machinery, would provide all the facilities necessary for the sale of poisons.

As far as I can see, there will be little or no restriction. Even if we take the words of the right hon. Gentleman on the Amendment which I moved, if there are five ironmongers and three grocers in a village, the difficulty of the local authority will be to distinguish between the ironmongers and the grocers, as to which -of them should have the opportunity of selling these poisons. I shudder to think what will happen, because it is estimated that there are some 80,000 grocers with separate grocers' shops in the country, some 60,000 ironmongers' shops, and about 100,000 animal food merchants' shops. Are all these traders going to have facilities granted them under Part II of this Bill for the purpose of selling the poisons agreed upon by the Poisons Board which is to be set up?

We say that the distinction between Part I and Part II ought to be, not broadened, but restricted, and we would have all of the poisons—and I could mention quite a number of them—disposed of by persons who are really competent, and when those poisons, obnoxious as they are, are disposed of, a proper record as to their disposal should be kept. My reading of the Bill is that under Part I that is so, but that under Part II that is not so. I may be wrong, and if I am, the right hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity of correcting me. I trust that I am wrong, but, as I read the Bill, in regard to the poisons which are to be sold under Part II, as long as they are sold in proper containers, there is no requirement that the name and address of the person to whom the poison is sold should be retained by the person who sells the poison, and there is no possible opportunity of tracing those poisons, once they have been sold.

The position, as I see it, is that Part II of the Poisons List is to comprise the poisons which may be sold by anyone who is not a qualified pharmacist. According to statements which have appeared in the Journal of the Institute, the intention of the Home Office is that these unqualified vendors shall be restricted to selling only poisons used for agricultural, horticultural, sanitary, and industrial purposes. This means not only that the arsenic and nicotine sheep-dips and weed killers already on sale at village grocers' stores and big suburban ironmongers and corn dealers will continue to be obtainable there, but that these vendors will be allowed to lay in stocks of lysol, carbolic acid, and similar sanitary preparations. Moreover, the sale of cyanide of potassium, corrosive sublimate, oil of vitriol, and other desperately dangerous things used every day for industrial purposes may be allowed to any shopkeeper who claims to be registered as entitled to sell poisons under Part II of the Poisons List.

I have given, I think, sufficient indication that this is a very important Bill, and I repeat that, instead of the Home Office extending the right of shopkeepers to sell poisons such as those which I have described, one would have imagined that in the public interest there would have been a kind of co-ordinating Bill to restrict the sale of those poisons and, when a sale had taken place, make it possible for the person to whom the sale had been made to be traced. Speaking on behalf of the public, I can only say that, with an extension of the facilities such as I have described as likely to take place, the public are likely to view this Bill with a good deal of apprehension. I do not want to cite the number of cases which have been brought to our notice from time to time by the Press, of tragedies which have taken place owing to the very easy manner in which poisons can now be obtained, but I say that there is a possibility of wholesale abuse unless the Home Office regards this Bill, as I regard it, with a good deal of concern. I would that, instead of extending the list of those authorised to sell poisons under Part II, there had been a restriction, and that poisons would have been allowed to be sold only by those proved competent by examination to sell them. For that reason, I have felt it incumbent on my part to express my views on the Third Reading of this Bill.

5.36 p.m.


I have listened very carefully to all that my hon. Friend has said in criticism of this Bill, but I am not quite sure whether, in his very busy life, he has been able carefully to digest each of the special Clauses of this Bill as well as the report of the Committee which investigated the whole of the problem and the circumstances, and pondered over them too, may I say, for a considerable time. When my hon. Friend speaks about a certain very minor section of so-called organised pharmacists who object to this Bill, I would ask him to remember that there has been no taking by surprise of any section of this professional class. They have had years in which thoroughly to digest the report of the Committee with regard to the general handling and sale of poisons, and whatever may be their special public spirit, they at any rate have not gone to the expense to which the Government have gone to promote a Bill to remedy some of the unfortunate conditions that at present obtain with regard to the easy facilities for obtaining poisons.

First of all, therefore, I would say that a minor section of professional interests have not played their part in presenting a protective Measure on behalf of the public. Secondly, unlike my hon. Friend, I have had thousands of letters and postcards from men and women up and down the country, including doctors and professional men in other departments of life, who use drugs and are compelled to mix and administer them, thanking me for some insignificant part that I have taken in regard to general poison legislation matters and in trying to assist the country to a proper estimation as regards the protection of every section of the public and to restrict the illegitimate facilities for obtaining certain questionable drugs which the public, to their danger, at present have. Unlike that of my hon. Friend, my postbag has been overcrowded with letters of appreciation with regard to this vital Measure.

My hon. Friend is very uncertain, he says, as to the correct and proper choice of sellers of poisons, but he will find in the Bill that a very select Board is to be set up, comprising one of the super-mentalities from Scotland, to assist in inspecting, organising, and making regulations for the correct sale and supply of these medicines and drugs in a way that will be safe for the public, and, be it said, in the most economic and money-saving fashion too. I want my hon. Friend to visualise some of the little grocers' shops in some of the scattered villages, the one-man and the one-woman shopkeeper where the little child comes in and gets a pennyworth of sweets. The hand that goes into the bottle to get the sweets may the next moment have to deal with a pennyworth of weed-killer containing poison, and when another child comes in for sweets, the shopkeeper may have, perhaps with a washed hand or perhaps not, to put that same hand into a bottle of sweets which a moment before had handled loose poison. Under this Bill that would be impossible.

There are certain features of the Bill, I admit, that I would have preferred to see improved. For example, there is a provision that the county council shall have power to nominate who shall be the seller of poisons in a village, it may be, some 30 miles away from the county town, whereas I think that might have been improved by allowing the county and municipal boroughs to have that power by encircling the villages inside such borough territorial groups. But, taking the Bill as a whole, when the British public thoroughly understand the working and the purpose of this Measure; I think they will find that they have much to thank this Government for in bringing forward a practical and helpful Measure which will raise the standard of efficiency of the pharmaceutical chemist still higher than it is, even at present, and will help those who administer medicines in the medical fraternity, and give some assistance also to the veterinary colleges and surgeons. On the whole, and as a main issue, this Bill when it becomes law will be one splendid Measure, at any rate, that the Government have passed during their tenure of office and which will spell progress in the march of those who practise the art of healing.

5.42 p.m.


The hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. G. Hall) complained at the beginning of his speech of the method of introduction of the Bill on Second Reading, but if he will refer to the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. C. Edwards), Who sits beside him, he will know that I asked Whether or not the Opposition would care for me to make an opening statement in introducing it on Second Reading, and that I was informed that as it was very late at night or early in the morning, and as the Bill was agreed on all sides, it was unnecessary for me to say anything then. I hope, therefore, I shall be absolved from any desire to keep from the House anything that is contained in the Bill. Then the hon. Member said that bodies other than the Pharmaceutical Society had not been consulted. It is true that a large number of bodies and individuals were consulted, but I must admit that there were certain people Who were left out when consultations took place. We did, however, consult all the important bodies. The Pharmaceutical Society represents an overwhelming number of the chemists of this country, and the other associations are really insignificant in comparison The hon. Member said that this Bill would increase the facilities for the purchase of poisons, but what poisons? Did he mean the purchase of very dangerous substances or substances which are not so dangerous and which are required in large volume or in bulk for agriculturists or horticulturists? That is the point. It is a question of the danger of the substances Which will be able to be sold under Part II of this Bill. The Bill will certainly increase the facilities for the purchase of certain dangerous substances, but the substances which will be placed into either Part I or Part II will be decided by the Poisons Board, and it is clear that that board, with all their experience, will not put really dangerous substances into Part IT, but will retain those for Part I, to be dealt with, made up, and sold only by experienced chemists. If the hon. Member will look at Clause 17 of the Bill, he will see these words in Sub-section (3): In determining the distribution of poisons as between Part I and Part II of the said list, regard shall be had to the desirability"— I emphasise the word"desirability"— of restricting the said Part II to articles which are in common use, or likely to come into common use, for purposes other than the treatment of human ailments, and which it is reasonably necessary to include in the said Part II if the public are to have adequate facilities for obtaining them. Sub-section (4) is also important: The Secretary of State shall forthwith take into consideration the list submitted to him by the Poisons Board"— that is, the list which will state what, in the opinion of the Poisons Board, should be included in Part I and what should be included in Part II— and may by Order confirm it, with or without modifications, as he thinks proper. If it is found that in practice Part II contains dangerous elements, the Secretary of State has power under Sub-section (5) after consultation with or on the recommendation of the Poisons Board, by Order to amend or vary the said list as he thinks proper. Surely there is plenty of safeguard in those provisions to prevent any really dangerous substances being sold by an unauthorised and unqualified man. If the hon. Member is not satisfied, I would ask him to turn to Clause 18, which contains the prohibitions and regulations. If he reads that Clause with care, I am sure that he will be satisfied that the regulations are sufficient to ensure that under Part II of the Bill the public health will not be endangered. If it is any consolation to the hon. Member to know it, I would point out that there are at present a group of dangerous substances, such as spirits of salts, etc., which can be sold by anyone, however undesirable he may he. That is under the present law. These substances may or may not be in Part II after this Bill becomes an Act, but, at any rate, the position is that under the existing law very dangerous substances can be sold by anybody, however undesirable. I am sorry to feel that this Bill is receiving opposition at the hands of a Member of the Opposition party—




I am sorry that the hon. Member even criticises it, and especially that he criticises Part II, for I would remind him that the Bill was originally introduced by the Labour Government, and the principle contained in Part II of this Bill was actually in the Bill which was introduced by hon. Gentlemen opposite. Before condemning the Bill the hon. Member might have taken that fact into consideration. The hon. Member for West Leyton (Sir W. Sugden) has said quite rightly that this Bill has been before the House for several years and before the country for an even longer period. It meets with the general approval of all persons concerned directly and indirectly in the sale of poisonous substances. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Third Reading now in the interest of the sellers as well as of the purchasers of dangerous substances.