HC Deb 15 February 1978 vol 944 cc609-28

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Medicines (Exemptions from Restrictions on the Retail Sale or Supply of Veterinary Drugs) Order 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 2167), dated 20th December 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th January, be annulled. At the beginning of this debate I must declare my interest as a farmer and purchaser of veterinary products from time to time. The purpose of the Prayer, as I must make clear at the beginning, is not to vote against the order; indeed, basically we welcome it. But as there are a number of important issues that arise from it we felt that it would be helpful if at this moment the House could have an opportunity of discussing the implication of the changes in the rules in respect of the sale of many veterinary drugs.

The order means that exemptions will be given from control for certain veterinary products. Particularly, it means that there will be a continuation of what is known as a "farmer's list" of drugs which can be supplied by merchants. We welcome both these points. However, certain questions arise. We would like the Minister to explain what possible future developments might take place with regard to the sale of these veterinary drugs.

This order is one of the worst drafted orders it has ever been my misfortune to look at. Anyone looking at Article 3 (1) would find it impossible, if he was not a lawyer—and I am not—to understand it on one reading. One hears often of a double negative. I believe that somewhere in there is a triple negative I know that it is difficult for Ministers to deal with these things because of pressure of work, but I wish that they would give instructions to the effect that orders drafted in this extremely complicated and obtuse way should be sifted before being presented to the House.

Second, I want to ask the Government why certain products have been left off the list of exemptions which we see in the schedules. We believe, and we are backed in this by a number of outside bodies, including the NFU, the pharmacists and a number of traders in veterinary medicines, that there are a number of products which have been left out of the schedules which might well have been put into them. The implication of other drugs being put into the schedules is that it would be possible for farmers to obtain those drugs without having a prescription from a veterinary surgeon.

For some peculiar reason which I do not understand, calcium borogluconate—which is a well-known treatment for milk fever and grass staggers—can be sold without a prescription when it is on its own, but when it is involved with magnesium and other compounds it has to be sold on a prescription-only basis. That is difficult to understand.

There has been a good deal of opposition to this move from the bodies I have mentioned. It is important to farmers that an immediate supply of that product should be available. Those who have seen its dramatic and fast effects on an animal suffering from milk fever do not need to be told how important it is that farmers should have it readily and speedily at hand.

The second group of products I wish to inquire about are the multi-vitamin injections, products which have been used for a long time in normal agricultural practice and which, as far as I am aware, have never given rise to problems. There are also copper injections, which, again, are part of routine practice on some farms, including my own, where conditions such as swayback are well known. It seems strange that these products cannot be exempted and placed on the farmer's list. Is there any history to show that the relatively free availability of these drugs has caused problems? Why have they been left off the list of exemptions? It seems strange that they should have been left off.

I hope that the Minister recognises that these drugs are often neeeded quickly. There is a danger if there is delay in making them available. If a farmer has to rush off to get a vet to come to the farm and issue a prescription, and if he then has to go to a pharmacist or to a vet's surgery in order to get the products prescribed, delay will be caused, and also extra cost. The farmer will have to pay the fee which the vet would charge to come to the farm to inspect the animal, and in very many cases all farmers know that treatment is required.

I hope very much that the products I have mentioned, and maybe some others, can be taken off the prescription-only list. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security—I am glad to see him on the Treasury Bench—gave a hint recently that certain injections might be exempted in the future. I hope that when the Parliamentary secretary replies he will be able to give us good news that another order will be introduced exempting rather more of the types of injections to which I have referred.

The matter of cost and availability brings me to another point. There is no doubt that the extension of the prescription-only list will mean that the turnover of certain veterinary products by veterinary surgeons will increase. At the same time, as more products go on to the prescription-only list, it must be equally certain that the turnover of pharmacies will fall off in consequence of these products being channelled through the hands of the vets.

It is a fact that the vets derive considerable income from the sale of veterinary products. I think that that is perfectly reasonable and I am not for a moment arguing against it. In my experience, it is also a fact that vets do not very often write out prescriptions. Much more often they supply prescriptions themselves there and then, out of the back of the car, or make them available in the surgery for later collection.

This is the background to the situation which has arisen in consequence of the order. A good deal of concern is being caused among pharmasists up and down the country. It is a particularly serious problem in the rural areas, where many pharmacies are already closing down.

I draw the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to Early-Day Motion No. 16, which now has attached to it the names of no fewer than 180 right hon. and hon. Members who have expressed anxiety about the number of pharmacies closing down. As I have said, it is particularly dramatic in the rural areas, and there is no doubt that the implications of the order will mean that a number of pharmacies will find life more difficult as more products go on to the prescription-only list and as the turnover is likely to go towards the vets.

Naturally, pharmacists' fears would be very much reduced if vets became much more ready to sign prescriptions, but even if that trend were to take place it is still true to say that pharmacists' turnover is likely to fall as result of the order.

I do not want in any way to drive a wedge between the vets and the pharmacists. Indeed, I want to try to smooth the waters in these matters. I hope that in rural areas both vets and pharmacists will be able to get together, through their associations, to try to come to some agreement on the extent to which vets will take on themselves the supply of many of the products which are now becoming prescription-only. The implications in rural areas for the turnover and the livelihood of pharmacists are really quite serious.

I now turn to the position of the small traders, who perform a very valuable service, particularly in our upland areas. These are the men who tour farms in vans, selling sheep dips and other products in a way which has become traditional. It is not in any way our intention or desire to promote the interests of some of the so-called cowboys who come round one day and are never seen again. In the North Pennines area, however, there are many small business men who perform an extremely valuable service in this way, which has become traditional. I very much hope that they will not be pushed out as a result of the order and the new regulations.

I gather from the order that impulse sales will be banned and that in future these merchants will have to take orders and deliver subsequently from their vans. I want to register our alarm at the implications. These people should be thought about. I hope that the Minister is prepared to keep the position of these small traders under review and that, if there are signs that many of them are being driven out, amending regulations will be brought in to try to safeguard their position. Whether it could be a form of order allowing them to carry on their business in some simple way I do not know, but I want an undertaking that the hon. Gentleman is sympathetic to these traditional merchants and will be prepared to look sympathetically at their case.

I want to deal with a number of other matters which lie in the future. I gather from talking to people who have been dealing with the order that there is a temporary flavour about it. In the eyes of some, there are likely to be more regulations to follow. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be careful to avoid, if he can, a situation in which the number of drugs on prescription only will be extended. We believe that it would be better if the scope of the exemptions was enlarged in the way I have described.

We understand that with any medicine, whether a human medicine or a veterinary medicine, there is a residual chance of danger if misuse occurs, but we believe that it is not practical to seek to eliminate every possible residual danger. That could be done only at the price of reduced welfare of animals and at very much increased cost to those who keep them.

I understand that the Veterinary Products Committee is reviewing the lists to see wheher more products should become prescription only. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not agree to that without very strong reasons being provided to justify such a change. I hope he will give that undertaking.

The pharmacists have expressed some concern at the composition of the Veterinary Products Committee. The British Distributors of Animal Medicines Association has told us that no less than 80 per cent. of the committee is made up of veterinary surgeons. The pharmacists, realising that the more products that become prescription only the more products are likely to go away from the pharmacists and over to the vets themselves, not unnaturally have some fears. They have, I understand, asked the Government whether the committee could be supplemented by two practising agricultural and veterinary pharmacists. How are the structure and balance of the committee at present established?

I understand that there are no practising veterinary pharmacists on the committee. It would be well worth the Parliamentary Secretary's while to consider putting someone with these qualifications on the committee. I hope that he will look at this proposal sympathetically.

There is a danger inherent in the order of a rift developing between the vets and the pharmacists. I hope that nothing I have said will exacerbate a deterioration in their relationships. The Parliamentary Secretary has the job of smoothing things out as best he can between the two groups which provide such an excellent service in our rural areas. It is important that they should continue to prosper side by side, and the extent to which they do so depends on how the Parliamentary Secretary uses his good offices to smooth out difficulties arising out of the order.

These matters are causing concern. We shall be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary will reply to these points.

11.51 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has made it clear that he is asking for information and has no intention of defeating the order. He undertook the generous task of trying to prevent any rift between the pharmacists and vets. That is a noble endeavour. Blessed are the peacemakers. However, he is taking a risk that he who intervenes will get clobbered from both sides.

The hon. Member gave a list of products that he wanted exempted. I wonder whether this includes dapsone Sulphacillin, used in the treatment of mastitis.

I declare an interest in that I am the Member for Liverpool, West Derby, and I have received invitations to talk about foot rot from people who believed that I was the Member for West Derbyshire. I once accepted one of these invitations, and we had an interesting evening when it was found that I was not the Member for that constituency. In my constituency, which is very small, I have three farms that used to belong to Lord Sefton. They are among the best farms for livestock and arable land in Lancashire. My other interest is that I am parliamentary adviser to the Pharmaceutical Society.

The hon. Member for Westmorland has put the case, but I do not know whether the Pharmaceutical Society would agree entirely about the possible differences occurring in respect of some of their members if these products are obtained in one way as opposed to another. There may be difficulties. Certainly the Society would agree that the first concern is safety, as would both the National Farmers' Union and the vets.

After the recommendation from the Medicines Commission there has to be a three-year period to arrange the adjustment. One person involved in the NFU has referred to this order as the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Other things may happen in a short period to make this irrelevant or immaterial. It is not the beginning of the end, other things are likely to happen.

If there is a committee, a panel, or a group of people who will take major decisions, and if the composition of that committee is almost wholly from one section of the people involved and not representative of the whole area, this will create difficulties. If the committee included someone with pharmaceutical knowledge, as well as vets and farmers, this would help.

The order is complicated, but it will not exist for ever. Objections and suggestions have been made, and the Department's officers have tried to be as helpful as they can. We are agreed on both sides of the House that we want them to be a little more helpful.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I hope that I shall be brief, but this is an important matter.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) said, it is important that the order should go through this evening. There will be certain legislation effect if it does not go through. In other words, the situation will be chaotic if we did not pass this order. However, there are a number of matters that need covering, and complaint need to be registered with the Minister so that in his reply he can give certain assurances and promise certain changes.

I wish to declare an interest, not as a farmer, but because the chief executive of the organisation mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland, the British Distributors of Animal Medicines Association Limited, is a constituent of mine, and indeed a very good friend of mine. Therefore, I have a duty to put forward on behalf of this organisation a number of matters to the Minister.

The subject matter of complaint is paragraph 11 of a document that was issued or prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food entitled MAL51, issued in January of this year, under the Medicines Act 1968, and headed Notes on retail sale of certain veterinary medicines to farmers and other commercial keepers of animals, and a document, MAL52, issued in January 1978 which is entitled Notes on retail sale of certain veterinary medicines to commercial manufacturers of animal feedingstuffs". The latter document is, in my view, the major area of complaint. As I understand it, it gives permission to people to dispense residual stocks of POM products if they get veterinary prescriptions. Surely this cannot be correct. I hope that the Minister will examine the position carefully before he replies.

I shall not go into the chronological situation in detail or all the matters that have arisen over a period of years, but the general purpose of the Medicines Act 1968 was to bring the dispensing and sale of drugs, including veterinary drugs, under stricter control. It required that POM drugs—that is, drugs to be administered under the care or direction of a doctor, dentist or veterinary surgeon—should be issued by them or dispensed by a pharmacy against one of their prescriptions. This is covered by Section 52 of the 1968 Act and is also covered in the second and third paragraphs of MAL 51.

The second main purpose of the Act was to create a general sales list of what I can only describe as innocuous products that could be left to the layman to use himself. All other pharmaceutical products were to be sold by pharmacies only.

Therefore, POM products are in professional hands or pharmacies, and the latter can also stock and sell general sales list products and pharmacy-only lines. Some exceptions were made to cover the sales of small packs of human drugs, such as aspirin, in supermarkets and so on and also to cover the sales of certain mass animal treatments which hitherto had been sold via the agricultural merchant as well as pharmacies. I wish to pay tribute to the splendid service given in many parts of the country by agricultural merchants who provide a very valuable service to the farmer. The law requires that people who wish to sell items listed in Statutory Instrument No. 2167 should register with the Pharmaceutical Society. Those wishing to sell only general sales list products list their names with the local authority. The debate concerns giving a period of grace of six months to people to dispose of stocks of products which have been reclassified. That fact is worth emphasising.

The second part of paragraph 11 of the document to which I have referred is right and must stand. It is important that the six-month deferment should be given. However, the second part of the paragraph permits non-pharmacists to dispense veterinary surgeons' prescriptions in order to dispose of residual stocks. That is an appallingly bad piece of legislation which goes against the whole objective of the 1968 Act.

Let us examine briefly the consequences of non-pharmacists dispensing veterinary surgeons' prescriptions if they have the stocks to do so. Not only will this include non-pharmacist retailers who list their names with the Pharmaceutical Society; it will allow GSL sellers to dispense. No one knows who these people are, because local authorities are not required to publish their names so the Pharmaceutical Society cannot, for practical purposes, carry out its statutory duties. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary is aware of this dangerous situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland referred to bad drafting of the legislation in another area. It has been badly drafted and there are a number of areas where dangers could arise. It is worth reminding the Parliamentary Secretary that elsewhere the enforcement branch of his Ministry, in co-operation with other bodies, is undertaking a campaign—only partially successful, I regret to say—to try to stop the illegal sales of antibiotics for use on animals destined for human consumption. The organisation to which I have referred is privileged to have taken much of the lead in this campaign.

We have the ludicrous situation of one department in the Ministry trying desperately to stop illegal sales while another department is busily presenting the cowboys—to use the title they are given in the trade—with a most beautiful way of continuing to break the law. Of course, the law does not require GSL sellers to keep a record, of their dispensing.

These are technical points, but they are important. Neither is it possible for the Government to say that it will be difficult for the deliberately illegal seller to obtain POM products in future. This type of person always has a cover story to present to any official inquiry. He will say something like "I am holding this for a vet's prescription."

What is to be done? The present difficulties were caused by the failure of the parent Act to cover sales of veterinary products to non-pharmaceutical outlets. That should be put right by a short amending Bill or some other form of parliamentary procedure about which the Parliamentary Secretary no doubt knows more than I.

As for the consent for non-pharmacists to dispense, the Minister should instruct the Ministry to issue yet another amendment to S.I. No. 2127 cancelling forthwith consent for anyone other than veterinary surgeons or pharmacists to dispense the animal health and veterinary drugs set out in the order.

The professional and trade associations will continue their unremitting pressure to make sure that the requests they have so far made are carried out and ensure that suitable publicity is accorded when unfortunate results follow in the wake of pretty supid errors by the drafters of one of the worst set of Statutory Instruments ever issued. This is a common criticism widely voiced in the industry.

Another unfortunate result of the proposed deferment of S.I. No. 2127 is that the manufacturer and trader think that all of the issued nine Statutory Instruments are postponed where action is concerned until 1st August next. This is not correct, and I hope that the Minister will highlight that in his reply.

One can scarcely blame the trade, the veterinary profession or the veterinary manufacturer for this state of affairs since the Press release which have been issued to date have been issued, basically, not by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food but by the Department represented on the Front Bench tonight by the hon. Member for Waltham Forest (Mr Deakins), the Department of Health and Social Security. Very few of the animal health interests are on the DHSS mailing lists, and the DHSS does not know their addresses, either. Inevitably, therefore, confusion has arisen, and I hope that the Minister will admit that.

There is some doubt as to whether even the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons is aware of recent legislation or of the import of the matters under debate tonight. Certainly, the veterinarians in the field know very little about it.

I realise that I have highlighted a number of matters which some may consider to be of only minor importance, but when we are debating an order in the House at least the order should be properly and correctly drafted. Undoubtedly this order is not.

In conclusion, I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland. He has put to the Minister the views strongly held in agriculture about this order. I hope that the Minister will be sensitive on these matters and that the changes or assurances for which I have asked will be given, since otherwise the House is wasting its time.

12.7 a.m.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

I am sorry that the Minister has given in to bogus commercial pressure to make this order. To say that there has not been time to know what is happening and know what must be done is to ignore the facts of the case. The first consultations on this matter occurred as long ago as 23rd August 1973. There have been 61 meetings and minutes with the Ministry of Agriculture and with the various interested bodies, culminating in a reply from the Ministry as long ago as 1st June 1976 saying that the draft Statutory Instruments would be implemented shortly.

The trade has had plenty of time. We all know what happens when there is a standstill such as this. Everyone starts hoarding drugs which people think will be harder to get in the future. But these drugs are being withdrawn and put on prescription-only lists for good reasons.

When the time came for various sheep dips to be withdrawn—they should have been withdrawn immediately—because warning was given that various dips containing dieldrin were to be withdrawn, people hoarded and built up stocks because they thought that they were to be deprived of something better than the product which they would be allowed to have. It took two years to get rid of all the dieldrin sheep dips in this country because of the hoarding. I hope that the Minister is aware of the danger created by the making of this order.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) is wrong. We cannot have safety and convenience when we are dealing with such drugs as these. The object of the Medicines Act and of the order made under it is to ensure the safety, quality and efficiency of veterinary treatment, and the safety must be total in such a case as this. We must think of safety for the animal and safety for the handler, but above all we must bear in mind—this is becoming more and more important and disturbing—safety for the consumer of products which have been treated with these drugs. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) talked about shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. That is all that we are doing tonight. Let us be realistic. I hope that we shall see many more products taken off the farmers' list—there is only a temporary breathing space—and put on the prescription-only list.

I give two examples on which I hope that the Minister will not give way. I give only two examples, although if we go through the list there are many more that could be presented to the House. For instance, the warble fly dressing is at present on the farmers' list. It contains organo-phosphorus, which is one of the most dangerous chemicals that we want to get rid of in the countryside today. It is highly toxic and should not be on the farmers' list. It should go on the prescription-only list as soon as the Minister can act.

My second example is a dangerous vaccine for Orf that is at present handled by farmers. It is a live vaccine that is extremely dangerous to the farm labourer or shepherd who uses it. It should be on the prescription-only list. So often people get the Orf vaccine without a veterinarian's visit. In fact, they do not know whether they are handling it.

In agriculture we want to see the proper growth of preventive veterinary medicine. We cannot afford to have the vet on the farm only when things have gone wrong. The vet should be a regular consultant. He should keep a check on the farm and be in regular attendance. If things go wrong, it is too late for him to do very much.

I am sorry that the Minister has bowed to bogus commercial pressure. I hope that in reply he will make it clear that he intends to eneforce all the provisions of the Act. The hon. Gentleman will have my support and the support of many others if he decides to take many more products off the farmers' list and place them on the prescription-only list. That is what the general public will want him to do.

12.12 a.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I must declare an interest. I am a farmer. Therefore, I use these products. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball)—it probably slipped his mind—would declare an interest.

I must take a completely different view from my hon. Friend. I think that most farmers would do so. I much dislike the way in which we are moving in this area. There is a matter of principle at stake. I do not believe that farmers are yokels who cannot handle drugs. It is not right to suggest that they do not understand these matters. On the whole, the modern farmer is very well trained. He understands how to use drugs. Certainly most of my farm workers and other farm workers with whom I deal know exactly how to deal with drugs. They know how to look after their animals in a responsible manner.

I am sorry to see that there are more and more restrictions. I do not normally disagree with my hon. Friend, but I must do so on this occasion. I believe that there are many vets who are only too pleased to co-operate with farmers, instruct them and allow them to use drugs, and not only those that are obtained from vets.

Mr. Kimball

I should have made it clear that I am a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons appointed by the Privy Council. I was speaking with that interest.

Mr. Mills

I knew that my hon. Friend was doing so.

I must confess that in years gone by I have used many drugs that have been given to me by vets and from other sources.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

My hon. Friend looks well on it.

Mr. Mills

I did so because the vets felt that I was a responsible person who could handle such matters. I dislike the restrictions that are being introduced. I repeat that farmers are responsible people, as are farm workers.

I reiterate the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), although I think that he was especially kind tonight. I should have been that much stronger if I had been in his place. I say that as a practising farmer. However, I suppose that being on the Front Bench makes one very responsible. My hon. Friend was right to refer to the excellent service that the travelling salesmen have given to the farming community over the years. We are not talking about the fly-by-nights—the cowboys. If any of those people come on to my farm, they are soon rooted out. We do not want those kind of people on the farm. But we need the travelling salesmen. We in the South-West of England have many. I know three in my constituency who have been doing the job for 15 to 20 years. They have provided an excellent service by bringing to the farmer what he needs without any trouble. There has been proper liaison, friendship and advice and encouragement. It will be a sad day if we see the end of those gentlemen.

Mr. Ogden

I make no criticism of the hon. Gentleman's constituents or of those who come to his farm, but does he agree that the Medicines Act and the Medicines Commission were introduced because some drugs which had been used for a long period, supposedly safely, were found to be unsafe? This is not only the product of looking back. The Medicines Commission has the duty of looking forward as well. Part of the price of safety—learning from the lessons of the past—is to accept some restrictions on what we have done.

Mr. Mills

I do not really disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I am talking about the general direction in which matters are going with constant restrictions on the farming community, which is made up of responsible and trained people. Of course, there are some drugs which should be confined to prescription only from the vet. But I do not want this trend to go any further than it has gone. In a sense, I am firing a warning shot—no more, please.

I do not know of any evidence which shows that there have been real problems in this area. I cannot recall in my long farming experience damage through the misuse of drugs. It is for the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us where the abuse lies. Where is the evidence that it is necessary constantly to bring in these restrictions? I do not see the need for them. Of course, in past years, when perhaps farmers and farm workers were not so well trained it would have been right, but that is a different matter. I see no evidence for these restrictions at all.

I believe that the various chemical companies which prepare the drugs take great care to ensure that their products are in a form and have full instructions suitable for farmers to use. Most of these drugs and preparations go through a lengthy trial period so that the right product can be bought from the pharmacist or travelling salesman and used by the farmer.

I feel that we have gone too far. I reiterate that the points made by the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain in this excellent brief that was sent to me about the delay in treatment and the inevitable extra charges that will be made by the veterinary profession are true. That could happen. That would be very sad, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland rightly pointed out, in cases of milk fever and staggers, where time is essential, if the farmer has not got the product to deal with that problem, his cow will die and consequently £350 or £400 will have gone west.

Of course, I must try to be responsible. I accept fully that restrictions must be placed on certain drugs, but I believe that we are going too far.

12.20 a.m.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I shall take only a few moments of the time of the House. What difficulty has been caused which makes this legislation necessary as it applies to farmers? I take the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) about the Medicines Act, that there must be some parallel and that a drug which is prohibited for human use should not be available simply because it has "Animal Medicine" written on the bottle.

However, when one considers the thousands of doses of dangerous drugs which are administered safely every day on farms, it is ridiculous to introduce this heavyweight and almost unintelligible legislation to deal with a problem that does not exist. No doubt the Minister will make out a good argument for the legislation in cases where the medicine is primarily for human use. I do not use animal medicines now, but I have done so many times, and this legislation does not seem necessary.

Farmers administer medicines in a way which human beings do not to their fellow men. That is a fair point. Most ordinary people do not give their own families large doses of medicine. The district nurse or doctor does that. But the farmer administers medicine to animals. Dangerous drugs are administered by farmers with knowledge and common sense.

After giving someone a prescription for a human disease doctors do not usually say "By the way, if you call at my surgery tomorrow I shall give you two months' supply". They give the person a prescription and he goes to the chemist. I cannot recall being given a prescription by a vet. Vets provide the drugs themselves.

This is now a profitable sideline for vets. They administer these expensive drugs themselves. It am worried because many rural chemists, whose existence is important beyond their ability to provide animal prescriptions and who are part of the fabric of our rural life, will lose part of their business.

If the Minister can say that the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons wishes to see no improvement in turnover in practice that is different, but he cannot give that assurance. Vets will continue to make a happy sideline out of animal drugs in a way that doctors do not. Relatively speaking, the order is unnecessary.

12.23 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)

We have had a useful but short debate in which there has been time for the different interests to be represented—certainly by Opposition Members.

The order which is the subject of tonight's motion is one of a package made at the same time and brought into operation on 1st February. In some ways it has been one of the most difficult to get right. It represents an attempt to find the right way of dealing with that range of animal medicines used by farmers and others who keep animals as part of their business, but which it has not been thought necessary to put on veterinary prescription. Most medicinal products are used by ordinary members of the public, and it was for the public that the scheme embodied in Part III of the Medicines Act was primarily devised. The problem has been to fit the sort of products covered by this order into the general structure of retail sale controls provided by the Act.

The Medicines Commission began its consideration of how Part III of the Medicines Act should be implemented as long ago as 1971. In August 1973 it published its provisional recommendations for the controls to be applied to the nonprescription medicines used in livestock production.

Following these provisional recommendations, the Commission had further discussions with organisations affecting the trade, the professions and all others with an interest in this matter, and the final result was the circulation of a draft Statutory Instrument in March 1976. Circulation of this draft was followed by further discussion and representation by interested organisations, and I personally met two deputations of organisations with a point of view to express about the draft. What I am trying to stress in looking back in this way over past history is that the issues that lie behind this order have been carefully studied over a long period, and by representatives of all those whom they affect.

The order represents the Government's carefully considered decision as to how we should move forward at this stage. It does not pretend to be the final solution to this problem. This was the point raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling); where do we go from here? Over the next two or three years the Veterinary Products Committee will be examining the products in Schedule 1 to this order and recommending, for each product or group of products, what arrangements it considers are appropriate in the long term for retail distribution.

The "merchants' list" created by this order is a sensible working platform for the present day. From it we may well be able to move on towards something better still for the future. I must say to the hon. Member for Westmorland that Ministers will want to see the scheme that we are now embodying in this statutory form in operation for some time before coming to any conclusions as to what changes should be made in the restrictions and arrangements for the products contained in the schedule to the order.

I think that at this point I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), who I know takes a deep interest in the pharmaceutical profession and who has, in my presence, raised this issue in the House on a number of occasions, and also to the hon. Member for Westmorland that we are considering—and have been for some time—the question of the representation on the Veterinary Products Committee, and that I propose to ask the Medicines Commission to consider appointing a qualified professional pharmacist to the committee.

We all have very fresh in our minds the recent argument about the speed of introduction of the new list of medicines which are to be available only on prescription. This order, of course, is not concerned with those medicines. In the operation of this order there will be a two-year transitional period in which those concerned with the manufacture, importation and distribution of the products covered by it will be able to adjust to the changes it introduces. I believe that this will give ample time for all sections of the trade to arrange their affairs so that disruption and financial loss are minimised.

The order, of course, is not concerned solely with the retailing of farm animal medicines by agricultural merchants to farmers. Another important provision of the order is to be found in article 4, which is concerned with the supply of medicinal products to feed compounders for incorporation in feeding stuffs. Because of an anomaly in the way in which the terms "retail" and "wholesale" are defined in the Medicines Act, the supply of a medicinal feed additive to a feed compounder has to be treated as a retail transaction. Article 4 ensures that these transactions can continue to take place as they have in the past, and that feed compounders are able to continue getting their supplies of feed additives through existing channels and without unnecessary formality.

There has been some controversy about the arrangements which enable feed compounders to keep certain prescription feed additives in stock, as they have been doing in the past, but I am sure it is right to allow this practice to continue. Compounders holding stocks of the prescription additives—they are mostly antibiotics—will not, of course, be able to incorporate them into a feedingstuff until a veterinary prescription has been issued.

Perhaps I might now deal with the point raised by a number of hon. Members about the incorporation of certain products in what the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) called the "farmers' list", and is sometimes called the "merchants' list". It is clear from the discussion tonight that there is scope for argument, and the Veterinary Products Committee will, of course, take into account the views that have been expressed during this debate when it comes to consider these products, but we have to accept that these matters have been carefully considered by the Veterinary Products Committee. It would be wrong for the Government at this stage to tamper with the judgment of the Medicines Commission.

Some of the products not on the merchants' list are excluded because they fall within a particular class or method of administration which the Commission recommend should generally be restricted to use by or on the specific advice of a practitioner.

Time is running out. Hon. Members have raised a number of specific points to which I shall reply—

It being half-past Twelve o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.