HC Deb 23 July 1976 vol 915 cc2436-41

9.57 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James A. Dunn)

I beg to move, That the Poisons (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 30th June, be approved

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

It might be for the convenience of the House if we also discuss the Poisons (Northern Ireland) Order 1976. I understand that both are consolidation measures.

Mr. Dunn

The purpose of these Orders is mainly to consolidate the legislation relating to pharmacy and to poisons in Northern Ireland. The comparable legislation in Great Britain is already conveniently contained in two Acts, the Pharmacy Act 1954 and the Poisons Act 1972.

At present the pharmacy and poisons legislation in Northern Ireland is contained in four Acts which have been subject to substantial amendment over the years and are due to be further amended when Part III of the Medicines Act 1968 —a United Kingdom Act—is brought into operation. The principal effect of the two Orders is to omit superseded provisions and to incorporate insertions and amendments which have been made to the Acts from time to time, including those due to be made under the Medicines Act later this year.

I will deal first with the Pharmacy Order. Part I of the Order is introductory. and Part II provides for the continuation of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and of its council. Since their establishment some 50 years ago, these bodies have been successful in maintaining and raising the already high standards of their profession in Northern Ireland and in ensuring that the practice of pharmacy remains responsive to advances in knowledge and to changing conditions. Part III continues provisions relating to the registration of pharmaceutical chemists and druggists, and Part IV continues the arrangements for disciplinary proceedings within the profession.

As I have said, the main purpose of the Order is to consolidate Northern Ireland legislation. However, the Order also contains a number of amendments aimed at clarifying and updating the legislation. For example, under the current legislation the practical training period required for pre-August 1967 pharmaceutical students is two years, whilst for post-August 1967 students it is one year. In order to provide flexibility, Article 8(2) of the Order requires that the person has undergone such a course of practical training as may be prescribed". This provision will enable the Council of the Pharmaceutical Society, subject to the approval of the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Services, to prescribe both the duration and content of the practical training required before registration.

In addition, Article 12 requires the registers of pharmaceutical chemists, druggists and students to be published annually, rather than in January each year, in order to include in the same publication the register of pharmacy premises maintained under the Medicines Act.

It is made clear in Schedules 1 and 2 that the Council of the Pharmaceutical Society may elect suitable members or associates of the Society as Fellows of the Society, and that the president and vice-president may be elected by the council.

The Order was published as a proposal and drew no substantial comments at that stage from interested bodies.

I turn now to the Poisons (Northern Ireland) Order 1976. Part I is introductory, and includes a definition if the new term "non-medicinal poison", which is used to describe the poisons which will be retained on the Poisons List when medicinal products have been removed from that list and brought under control through machinery provided by the Medicines Act 1968.

Part II of the Order continues the provisions relating to the constitution and duties of the Poisons Board. The board will advise the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Services on the substances which are to be treated as non-medicinal poisons and on such other matters as from time to time may be referred to it by the Department of Health and Social Services.

Part III of the Order sets out in consolidated form the controls on the sale of non-medicinal poisons. This part of the Order also continues the arrangements for the registration by district councils of persons who are permitted to sell certain non-medicinal poisons, Part IV of the Order contains provisions concerning the sale of methylated spirits and ether which were omitted from the Licensing Act (Northern Ireland) 1971.

As I have said, the Order is mainly a consolidating measure. However, it also includes a few amendments. For example, the amounts of certain fines which have not been changed for over 20 years are now increased.

Schedule 1 changes the method of appointment of the Poisons Board. At present, the members of the board are appointed by various bodies, with the result that appointments can operate from a variety of dates. The Order now provides that the board will be constituted in the same way as other advisory bodies. The change is purely procedural, as appointments will be made only after full consultation. Schedule 3 to the Order will permit the sale of methylated spirits between certain hours at the weekends.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has drawn attention to the two Orders on the grounds that their purport requires elucidation. Both Orders, although primarily measures of consolidation, contain a number of amendments. These are described in the explanatory notes at the end of the Orders as minor amendments. The Joint Committee has expressed the view that this is a misleading description. Differences of opinion may of course arise as to the importance to be attached to particular amendments, but it is my view and that of my legal advisers that in the overall context of the pharmacy and poisons code of legislation which is consolidated in the two Orders the amendments are of minor significance.

Attention was drawn to them in the explanatory documents which were issued to interested organisations with the draft Orders when they were first published on a consultative basis as proposals for legislation. As I have already indicated. there was little response from interested bodies and this would seem to confirm the view that the amendments are not considered to be major matters.

A list of the changes in question is to be found in the memorandum supplied by the Northern Ireland Office to the Committee, which is appended to the Committee's report. However, in view of the Committee's opinion, it is proposed to delete the word "minor" where it now appears in the explanatory notes, which I hope will satisfy the House.

In conclusion, the consolidation which these Orders undertake will prove useful to all concerned with the legislation, and I commend the Orders to the House.

10.7 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

If I may coin an expression, this is not entirely a minor matter. The Under-Secretary was right to take the bull by the horns and deal with the report of the Joint Select Committee. The position was that this motion was on the Order Paper today, and there appeared, for the first time, a reference to the report of 20th July of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. After an initial hesitation the Vote Office made reproduced copies —not printed ones—of that report available to hon. Members.

It is not entirely satisfactory that an Order should be considered on the first day on which the report of the Joint Committee appears and is made available to hon. Members. They should have an opportunity to read the report, to compare it with the Order, and to decide their attitude. The Government should avoid —it is bad practice—taking Orders when the report of the Joint Committee referring to them is available only on the day on which those Orders are taken.

I am glad that the Under-Secretary accepted, with some departmental defence, the criticism of the Committee. That is important, because my hon. Friends have not been able to give full scrutiny to all these Orders and when the explanatory memorandum confesses that a measure is consolidating, one tends to follow the usual procedure that a consolidating measure does not attract debate even when the fact that they are consolidating is qualified by reference to "minor amendments".

In confess that I regarded these two Orders as consolidating. It is of no little importance that the existence of amendments means that the Orders are not wholly consolidating and that this has been under-emphasised rather than over-emphasised in the memorandum. So I think this has been a useful event and I hope that lessons will be drawn from it in future.

I have only one question to put to the Under-Secretary upon the purport of the pharmacy Order, and it refers to the point to which attention was drawn in the Joint Committee's report, which is that the Department is to be responsible for certain functions which under the existing legislation are conferred on the "head of the Department". Hon. Members have become familiar with the fact that by virtue of Schedule 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1974 we are aware that when we read "head of the Department" in an Order we are to substitute for it "Secretary of State".

When we have endeavoured to write "Secretary of State" into statutes and Bills in replacement for the words "head of the Department", we have been told that it is not necessary and that all we have to do is to look up the 1974 Act where anyone will see that "head of the Department" really means "Secretary of State". But here we find that for "head of the Department" is to be substituted not "Secretary of State" but "the Department", meaning the Department itself. Sure enough, in the interpretation article "the Department" is defined as the Department of Health and Social Security.

I am at a loss to understand why this is, because it is clearly not a responsibility ever to be taken by a Department. Where certain functions are allocated to the Treasury, hon. Members are generally aware that "Treasury' is a shortened expression for "Lords Commissioners of the Treasury", who are Ministers and who bear ministerial responsibility. But here we appear to have a Department being put in the place of an executive head of Department who under the 1973 Act would have been responsible to the Assembly or, alternatively, put in the place of the Secretary of State, who would be responsible to this House.

I do not know whether I have bowled the Under-Secretary a fast one. If I have bowled him an unduly fast one, I am sure that he will be able to take refuge in the promise of providing information on a subsequent occasion. From the visible signs it may be that help is arriving, although maybe the assistance is not so wholly and intelligibly clear as to enable the Under-Secretary, with full confidence and conviction, to answer my question from the Dispatch Box. So I offer him an alternative either of reading to the House the message that has reached him or, perhaps even preferably, taking time to consider the matter and communicating subsequently.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Dunn

Sometimes it is wise to obey the customs of the House. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) mentioned my presence in another and earlier capacity, and I well recall as a Lords Commissioner of the Treasury sitting on this Bench for long hours following debates on Northern Ireland and taking particular note of those who participated in them. I always determined that I would never trespass if I could possibly help it against the procedural practices of the House and that I would always obey its customs. That is why I concluded that the Joint Committee report was acknowledged and that was why the amendment was accepted without reservation.

The right hon. Gentleman was correct. He has bowled me a fast one. Perhaps I can give him an answer off the top of my head. It may be that in the terminology used in the Order the custom and practice of the Northern Ireland statute has been followed. It may be that in order to protect that situation there has been no change in the terminology of the presentation. If so, that would indicate that the word "head" means the Secretary of State, or those whom he appoints to discharge functions on his behalf.

However, it may be wise for me to accept the advice of the right hon. Member for Down, South and look at the matter very carefully before sending him a detailed reply.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Poisons (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 30th June, be approved.