HC Deb 27 April 1964 vol 694 cc24-7
34. Mrs. Butler

asked the Minister of Health what conclusions he has reached following his consideration of the March 1964 report of the city of Birmingham analytical laboratories on the subject of the Birmingham drug-testing scheme.

Mr. Braine

I have nothing to add to the reply which my right hon. Friend gave to the hon. Lady on 13th April.

Mrs. Butler

Would the hon. Gentleman at least confirm that proposals for an independent central drug authority for the licensing of drug firms and to undertake the sampling of drugs at all points in the chain of distribution have been circulated to all the interests concerned following the appalling revelations from Birmingham? Would the hon. Gentleman say by what date he expects to receive comments and when he proposes to introduce legislation?

Mr. Braine

I am not sure that I can answer the last part of the question. I will take note of it and communicate with the hon. Lady. The report from Birmingham is disturbing. It has already been decided to review the statutory arrangements for the control of the quality of drugs, but conclusions have not yet been reached on that. This is only one aspect of the legislation connected with medicine which, as the House knows, is being reviewed. The problem is very complex and needs careful and detailed study if it is to be tackled effectively.

36 and 37. Mr. Edelman

asked the Minister of Health (1) whether he will make a statement on the contracts which he is placing with three British firms to import drugs from Poland and Italy for the hospital service;

(2) on how many occasions he has invoked section 46 of the Patents Act, 1949, to enable the National Health Service to obtain cheap supplies of drugs from unpatented sources abroad; and what is the total value of drugs which he has so obtained.

Mr. Barber

The contracts are made under the powers conferred by Section 46 of the Patents Act, 1949, which has been invoked on three occasions, in respect of drugs to the total value of approximately £750,000. The contracts provide for the supply to hospitals for a period of one year from 1st May, 1964, of the same five drugs as are obtained under existing contracts. Royalties will be paid to the patent holders after negotiation.

Mr. Edelman

Would the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the cost of tetracycline, a very widely used drug, when supplied in its proprietary form, is £45 per 1,000 whereas the cost for imported B.P. standard is between £4 and £6 10s.? Before the voluntary price agreement is renegotiated will the right hon. Gentleman emphasise to the proprietary drug manufacturers the great disparity among the prices they are charging? Is it not the case that to invoke the Patents Act is to use a very crude means of bringing the drug companies to heel? Would it not be very much fairer if, this matter having been brought to the attention of the drug companies, either they themselves should agree to a voluntary reduction of the exorbitant prices which they are now exacting from the community, or that the Minister should consider taking over the marketing of drugs himself?

Mr. Barber

I think that our arrangements are broadly satisfactory. I would not like to say anything this afternoon which would prejudice the renegotiation of the voluntary price scheme which is taking place with the industry.

I do not think that it would be advisable to go as far as the hon. Gentleman said. I know that the policy of the Opposition is gradually to nationalise the drug industry, but I believe that that would be wrong. After all, one has to bear in mind that the export earnings of the British drug industry are eight times as great as the import bill, and that one-third of the total expenditure on medical research in Britain at the present time is carried out in laboratories of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Mr. K. Robinson

May I first ask the Minister what is the source of his information that the Opposition policy is gradually to nationalise the pharmaceutical industry? [HON. MEMBERS: "Is it not?"] I am asking the Minister to state his source of information.

May I next ask the Minister two questions arising out of his original reply: First, assuming that he wins his case in the House of Lords, is he prepared to consider invoking Section 46 in respect of any additional drugs beyond the five already imported by him direct? Secondly, he will be aware that the savings affected by this action would be very much greater if they could be extended to the general pharmaceutical service. Has the right hon. Gentleman taken legal advice as to whether the supply of drugs on prescription under the National Health Service could be interpreted legally as a service under the Crown?

Mr. Barber

It is difficult to be sure without notice, but I believe that my predecessor took advice, and I think that the advice that he received was in the negative.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's second question, about the use of Section 46, I think that one must recognise that this is a serious business, and not one which one should take too lightly.

I recognise the importance of patent protection for the encouragement of research in this country, which I believe is very much in the national interest, but so far as we have not found it necessary to extend this exercise.

The hon. Gentleman asked for my source of information when I said that the policy of the Labour Party was gradually to nationalise the drug industry. I was referring to the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition at the Labour Party Conference in 1961, when he said: We propose that the Health Service meets its needs increasingly from public enterprise, either through new publicly owned undertakings, or by the acquisition of existing ones. Nobody could be more specific than that. It may be that the hon. Gentleman does not agree with that policy. If so, I hope that in the general interest he will dissuade his right hon. Friend from proceeding with it.

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