HC Deb 16 July 1941 vol 373 cc683-9

No person other than a person authorised under Sub-section (1) of Section seven shall sell any article comprising a substance recommended as a medicine under a proprietary designation unless it was, at the time of the passing of this Act, being sold under that designation.—[Sit Dymoke White.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir Dymoke White (Fareham)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I should like to explain my position in this matter. I have been asked to represent the views of the organised retail chemists, both independent and company chemists, numbering over 10,000 men. I occupy no official position in any business connected therewith, although, like other hon. Members possibly, I may hold shares in some public companies connected with company chemists.

I wonder whether the Committee appreciate that the repeal of the Medicine Duties widened the channels of distribution by the reduction in the price, at least by the amount of the duty, and I daresay by very much more by the making up of what are known as small packs. This practice will make available in the small shops and in chain stores a vast deal more patent medicine stocks than have been available in the past. I happen to know that manufacturers are ready to flood these chain stores with smaller packs. This is sure to lead to an increase in self-medication on the part of the public—call it self-doctoring, if you like—which must militate against the public health. This proposed new Clause seeks to narrow the channels of distribution of new proprietary medicines. We are not concerned with proprietary medicines in existence at the moment. It would do so by restricting the sale by retail to persons authorised under Sub-section (1) of Clause 7 of the Bill.

The proposal does not interfere in any way with the existing interests of manufacturers or distributors of proprietary medicines on the market at the present time. I want to make that quite clear. The Committee will appreciate that the widening of the distribution under this Bill, which I mentioned just now, will cause a certain loss to the chemist which in some small way will be offset by this new Clause. However, my main point is not that, but is that by limiting the sale of these new patent medicines to chemists only, the public will benefit by the advice of the chemist, who will know all about the ingredients, because they will be stated on the label, and who may be in a position to help the customer. You may ask why. The answer is because the chemist undergoes a long training of apprenticeship, he passes a stiff examination, both a practical one and a viva voce—and the latter is a very severe form of examination, as I know from experience myself, having been through it—and he is constantly handling the drugs from day to day in the ordinary course of his work. So by his knowledge, gained by training and experience, I suggest that he is in a far better position to act as an efficient guide to a prospective buyer than the man behind any other counter in the world. This point, I feel, has been largely lost sight of in the past. A lawyer advises the public on legal matters, the architects and dentists likewise in their respective spheres, so without trespassing on the domain of the members of the medical profession—who in my experience are only too ready to acknowledge the useful functions of the chemist, even if some only admit to the deciphering of the doctor's prescriptions—I ask the Committee to support this new Clause, and I ask the Minister to give it his blessing.

Mr. Spens

I must, of course, inform the Committee that of late months I have been advising some of the trade interests concerned in the arrangements which have resulted in this Bill, and I think everybody in the country is satisfied that we have got rid of the extremely confused situation arising out of the old Medicine Stamp Duty. The arrangements have been, I should have thought, quite definitely a bargain between certain trade interests, and I was absolutely amazed when I received a circular and later saw this Clause on the Order Paper. I have never said this in public, but I am going to say it now, because I think it is as well that the public should hear it. I personally have always felt that if there be any deception of the public in the sale of patent medicines, that deception is made all the greater and all the easier when they are sold from chemists' shops, because I think a great many of the public believe, when they see a medi- cine in a chemist's shop, that it must be perfectly all right because the chemist puts it in his window. A chemist is like every other human being. I am perfectly certain he does not sell stuff which he believes is injurious to the public, but I am equally certain that when he gets something which is innocent and will do no harm—and may do some people good —and on which, in addition, he gets a good profit, he will sell it, as anybody else in the country would. I say quite frankly to the Committee that if this Clause or any other like it is accepted, the whole of the trouble which we know has been going on for all these years over the Medicine Stamp Duty, and which we hoped had at last been done away with by means of a settlement reasonable to everybody concerned, will simply break out again. I hope the Committee will not have- anything to do with this Clause.

Sir I. Fraser

The hon. Gentleman who moved this new Clause made the point that chemists have to go through a most elaborate training under the body which rules the conduct of the chemist as a professional man, the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, the body which conducts the elaborate written and viva voce examinations to which my hon. Friend referred, the body which has statutory powers under the Food and Drugs Act, which is the guiding body in the chemists' profession and which is a party to this agreement. They do not associate themselves with my hon. Friend opposite. They are not with him, nor is he speaking for them. It is, on the other hand, the other society, the National Pharmaceutical Union, a business interests society, for which he speaks. He will not mind my making that quite clear. All those groups were together in the agreement which has been explained to the House; all the interested bodies disclosed to the House what their interest was, and, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) has pointed out, this new Clause, far from being necessary to compensate the chemists, is now put forward by some of the chemists as if they had had no compensation at all. The truth is this: The Select Committee of 1936 proposed no compensation to the chemists; let them remember that; it was upon that basis that the first proposal was brought to this House and that the Select Committee said: We are not impressed with the view that the chemist in his shop protects the public when he sells them a drug "— a proprietary medicine. We are not impressed "— says the Committee— and we do not think this long-standing privilege of the chemist should be maintained in the public interest. That is what the Select Committee said. In spite of that, the Chancellor, the Minister of Health, this House and all the trade interests concerned sat down at a table with the chemists and have come to an arrangement under Clause 7 which does in fact compensate them, and which they, until the eleventh hour, agreed did 'compensate them. Then my hon. Friend comes here—no doubt he has been misinformed in the matter—and says, "There is no compensation, so let us put this innocent little Clause in at the end, and all will be well." The fact is that this is a last-minute attempt to avoid the consequence of an agreement properly and honourably entered into by all these people, and I hope the Committee will recognise it as such and will reject this new Clause.

May I add one other small but very practical point? If the Clause was incorporated in the Bill, the manufacturer, whenever he made up packages for his customers, would have to take care that medicines which were in existence before this Act was passed were put into, one parcel, and medicines which were brought out after this Act was passed into another parcel, and there are 150,000 licensed sellers of medicines in this country. It would be impracticable for the manufacturer to do this. Far be it from me to say that the manufacturers would not welcome this. Does the Committee realise what it proposes? It proposes to give a monopoly to the present manufacturers, who, many Members of the House think, have got very good businesses, to go on trading without any possibility of competition whatever in the general market. There may be many manufacturers who would welcome it, but speaking for them, as I indicated to the Committee that I was, we would not dare to come to the House and ask for such a monopoly. It would be contrary to British tradition and contrary to the public interest to grant it.

Sir D. White

On a point of personal explanation. I wish to make it quite clear—I thought I had done so—that I was covering new ground. I said that this suggestion applied to new medicines entirely, and that it has nothing to do with the agreement in the past. I maintain that that suggestion was made in good faith, and also to emphasise to the Committee and the country as a whole my opinion, and the opinion of those whom I represent, that chemists have a function to perform and that some of those functions have been taken away from them over a series of years. I have said nothing about this deal around the table. I was speaking of the future entirely.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

One would almost think, from some of the speeches in the last few minutes, that this was a Measure from the Church Assembly, which we must either accept or reject, but must not amend, that it is a bargain which is sacrosanct. As an entirely free Member, I know of no bargain. We ought to look at this Measure on its merits, regardless of what any interests outside have had to do, and see whether particular Clauses are required by the public interest, which is the one and only test which could be applied. We have heard quite enough about bargains between interests. It is a matter for the House of Commons to decide. On the merits of the Clause itself, I have had a number of representations during the last day or so from chemists in my constituency who are very much interested in favour of this proposal. I confess I have not made any profound study of the situation myself, but I certainly feel, in view of what my hon. Friend has said, and in the light of the obvious demand from certain sections of the public, that the matter ought to be carefully considered by the Ministry of Health. The Minister ought to give effective reasons why this new Clause should not be adopted. Up to the present I do not feel satisfied merely to be told that this is all agreed and that nothing can be done.

Sir I. Fraser

Would the hon. Member pardon me? Quite obviously no one putting a case would be so foolish as to seek to deny the absolute right of the House to do exactly what it wishes, in its legislation. If any of my words implied any question of that, I must make it clear that I would not be so foolish as to have done so. I pointed out that the Mover of this Clause came here and said he spoke for the chemists, and I said that they were a party to the arrangements. That is all I said.

Mr. Mander

I was not really thinking of my hon. and gallant Friend at all; it was the rather strong language of the hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) which I had in mind. I ask the Minister to give this his serious consideration and tell the Committee whether he thinks it is a wise proposal or not before we can come to a considered judgment.

Mr. E. Brown

I can say at once that I cannot ask the Committee to accept this new Clause. If accepted, it would destroy what has been very hard, detailed and successful work to bring to fruition agreement on one of the most contentious of all subjects raised in the last quarter of a century. [Interruption.] We must leave the future to itself. When we are asked to link the future with the present and the past, we cannot take that view.

Mr. Mander

The future starts to-day.

Mr. Brown

The future is related to today, but if the hon. Member had given that long and detailed study to the subject which he says he has not given, he would understand why I say at once that I cannot advise the Committee to accept the new Clause. What does it do? It enlarges what is the privilege under the Bill to the chemists. Over so wide a range of interests, so large a measure of agreement had been reached on the basis that the privilege that the chemists had had without tax in legislation should be continued by that 'agreement, and by the assent of Parliament. The first effect of this Clause would be greatly to enlarge that privilege. That is the first major argument I give to the House. When people talk about the National Pharmaceutical Union it might be assumed that they speak for the whole of the chemists. That is not so. There are two bodies, one of them a great professional body, the Pharmaceutical Society, who were a party to all the discussions, professional discussions. There has been no last minute going back on their agreement on their part. I wish to make that clear. Perhaps when this Debate is over the hon. Member will read a very able article in the "Economist" in which the issue is very clearly stated in the last paragraph. This writer of 12th July says: There is, of course, no reason why a clash of professional and business interests should come at all. Many chemists have to struggle hard to make both ends meet, and so long as they are mainly dependent for their livelihood on having things to sell, they are forced to have a business as well as a professional outlook—though the extension of compulsory Health Insurance to incomes up to £420 a year will put the dispensing of medicines more and more on a salary basis. What the public interest demands is, not that chemists should withdraw completely from the business arena, but that they should not use their professional status merely to further their business ends—that in claiming to protect the public they should not really be seeking protection for themselves. That was said by a careful writer in a very balanced article. This Clause would widen the privilege and, I have no doubt whatever, would destroy what was the agreed basis of this Measure, on which the Bill has, with amity, proceeded so far with the good will of the House. There is one other thing. Hon. Members who look at this issue will realise that we are making a very big move in this contentious subject. We have done it because Members have regard to the past.

With regard to the future, we shall have to tee how this Act works out and, in the light of that, see what other steps are required for the public health. I explained, on Second Reading, that Clause 7 of the Bill could be justified on the ground that on the whole it was better to maintain the privilege the chemists had. I cannot add to that.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, to be considered upon the next Sitting Day, and to be printed [Bill 48].