HC Deb 08 December 1983 vol 50 cc473-83 3.57 pm
The Minister for Health (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the discussion that I and the Secretary of State have been having on behalf of all the United Kingdom health Ministers with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry on the scope for savings in the NHS drugs bill and other matters of mutual concern.

Prescription medicines cost the NHS in England about £1,250 million in 1982–83. Drugs account for about 40 per cent. of the total cost of the family practitioner service and about 10 per cent. of the cost of the NHS as a whole. The pharmaceutical industry's profits from NHS sales are governed by the non-statutory pharmaceutical price regulation scheme which was introduced in its present form in 1978. In the words of the published scheme, it is a key objective that safe and effective medicines should be available on reasonable terms to the NHS, but also that a strong, efficient and profitable pharmaceutical industry should exist in the United Kingdom. The industry's present target profit level was set by the Labour Government in 1978. Like our predecessors, we recognise that there is a major and successful industry providing 67,000 jobs and a net balance of exports over imports of around £600 million a year.

However, the present scheme has run unaltered for over five years. A review of the PPRS and its role in relation to the industry and the NHS was announced earlier this year. After extensive discussion with the industry's representatives and having taken account of the 10th report of the Public Accounts Committee published in April, we have decided to reduce the level of profit from NHS business and the level of sales promotion allowed as an expense under the scheme.

First, under the scheme each pharmaceutical company participating in it is assigned a target rate of profit, taking account of the circumstances of the individual company, the contribution which it makes or is likely to make to the economy, including foreign earnings, investment, employment or research We have decided that these targets should be reduced by an average of four percentage points, which will represent a saving to the NHS in the United Kingdom of about £40 million a year. We have also decided that the discretion, which our Department allows in certain circumstances when companies exceed their target profit rates, should be tightened and related more closely to a company's circumstances. Companies will be told what their new targets are soon.

Secondly, the industry will spend about £180 million this year on sales promotion. Some, but not all, of this amount is an allowable expense under the PPRS. Such promotion is funded largely from NHS sales, and we have concluded that the allowable level should be reduced. We propose that companies should be asked to repay to the Department a sum equivalent to a sales promotion expenditure, which exceeds the level allowed under the scheme; and that the industry limit should be reduced from the present level of 10 per cent. of turnover to 9 per cent. in 1985–86. We estimate that when fully implemented these measures should reduce actual expenditure on sales promotion by 25 per cent., but we will review this area again to see whether a further reduction can be made.

All the measures that I have announced will take effect from 1 April next year. In a full year they will produce savings on the NHS drug bill rising on present estimates from £65 million in 1984–85 to well over £100 million in later years. This compares with the industry's total profit from sales in the United Kingdom in 1983 of an estimated £200 million. The changes will mean that the price freeze on drugs — introduced in August as part of the £25 million savings agreed then—will continue, with few exceptions, through 1984–85 and beyond. Furthermore, the price freeze will be at the level established by the 2.5 per cent. cut that we settled in August.

We have also discussed with the industry the problem of parallel importing of medicines. This occurs when an importer takes advantage of exchange rates and low regulated prices of particular drugs in other countries to import or re-import those drugs into this country in competition with the identical or near-identical products already marketed here. At present, an exemption order under the Medicines Act 1968 is being used by parallel importers, in a way not envisaged when the order was made, to bring into Britain substantial quantities of medicines without a licence. Clearly, there are potential health hazards if a drug has not been properly manufactured or stored, if labels are in a foreign languge, or if there is difficulty in tracing a batch of drugs found to be faulty. We are not aware of any injury to patients so far, but we propose to guard against that possibility.

We are statutorily required to consult on these matters, and we will therefore shortly issue a consultative document on proposals which will ensure that medicines parallel imported for general dispensing must be licensed under the Medicines Act, either in the ordinary way, or in the case of medicines also licensed in the European Community, through a modified licence to cover such safety matters as storage, labelling and tracing.

There remains the question of generic substitution, which we have been considering in the context of the PPRS review, as announced earlier this year. The Greenfield committee proposed that a pharmacist should substitute an equivalent generic preparation for proprietary medicine unless the prescribing doctor had specifically said that this should not be done. The committee acknowledged tht it had not taken account of the wider implications, for example, on the pharmaceutical industry, of its recommendation. Consultation of the Greenfield report earlier this year showed professional opinion to be divided on this recommendation, which was only one of 14 recommendations.

It became clear that many general practitioners were concerned that their patients would be supplied with formulations of drugs that their doctors had not prescribed. General practitioners and pharmacists foresaw problems of divided responsibilities for the treatment of patients. The various procedures considered raise serious practical problems. We have therefore decided not to proceed with generic substitution. We do, however, intend to start a new campaign to encourage generic prescribing by doctors. As to the other recommendations of the Greenfield committee, we have already announced our acceptance of these or referred them to the appropriate educational bodies.

A number of other matters arising from the review of the PPRS must still be resolved in discussion with the industry. In particular, a study of transfer prices, which are the prices charged by a foreign-based company to its United Kingdom subsidiary, is being conducted by independent consultants, and our Department is undertaking a study of pharmaceutical wholesalers' profit margins.

In framing the proposals the Government have sought to achieve a balance between the interests of the NHS as customer and the interests of the industry. We recognise the research achievements of the industry and the contribution that it makes to the United Kingdom economy, and we want it to continue to flourish. However, there is an urgent need to contain the drugs bill for the Health Service, which we are also determined to achieve. I hope that the industry will accept this position, as we wish to continue with the price regulation scheme on a non-statutory basis.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

Is the Minister aware that the measures, far from achieving a balance, are a completely inadequate response to a public scandal of enormous proportions— I use those words advisedly. Against a background of deepening cuts in the National Health Service, leading to accelerating hospital closures, redundancies of doctors and nurses, and worsening patient care, is it not outrageous that the drug companies have been permitted by the Government to make profits at the expense of the National Health Service of more than £300 million this year—my figure, rather than the Minister's, is correct—at a rate of return on capital of 25 per cent., thus making it the most profitable industry after oil and advertising?

Is the Minister further aware that 54 of the 65 companies that supply the NHS are foreign-based, and that the Public Accounts Committee estimated that their profits from the NHS were understated through transfer prices and creative accounting—the Committee's words, not mine —by up to a further £200 million this year? Is he aware that the Public Accounts Committee report of last April stated that nine companies had made £33 million in excess profits—the Committee's phrase, not mine—from the National Health Service in two years; that three or four of the largest companies had been allowed profits of up to a 35 per cent. return on capital employed; and that the smaller companies, which do not manufacture in Britain, were allowed profits of no less than 200 per cent.?

Is the Minister further aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General, in a highly critical report issued earlier this year, complained that the DHSS had inadequate evidence to assess the industry's efficiency, and that the Department had failed in the administration of the profit control aspect of the price regulation scheme for drugs? In view of that scathing indictment by the official authorities, will the Minister tell the House how he intends to rectify those gross administrative deficiencies? Will he confirm that the new target rate of return, which he was careful not to mention, is still about 20 per cent., which is well above the maximum level recommended by the Public Accounts Committee of 17 per cent? Does he acknowledge that the £40 million that he proposes to save is less than the profit that one company might expect to make from only one successful drug?

In view of the Minister's frank acknowledgement of the excessive profits made by drug companies, will he consider reducing the consequential higher prescription charges, which have increased seven times under the Government?

Is the Minister aware that the Daily Telegraph, which is not a Socialist magazine, recorded a survey which found that £25 million could be saved by substituting unbranded versions of the branded drugs that cost the NHS £60 million a year? Does he agree that an enormous saving could be made in this area? Does not his rejection of generic substitution owe much more to the arm-twisting of the drug companies than it does to the real concerns of general practitioners, behind which he tries to hide?

Is not the Minister's statement still a licence to print money for the drug companies, while the Government are trying to drive down the appallingly low wages of some of the lowest paid workers in the National Health Service?

Mr. Clarke

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is following the practice of his predecessor the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) by reacting with hysterical and exaggerated language to an announcement which is extremely good news for the National Health Service and which represents a substantial saving on the drugs bill.

What we have negotiated in the proposals that I outlined to the House is part of the Government's policy towards the Health Service. We are seeking to improve its cost-effectiveness in order to maximise the value for money that we obtain from the increasing resources that the Government devote to it, for the benefit of the patients, who will receive better care. Independent consultants have examined transfer prices, because the Government wish to ensure that the figures that we use in our dealings with the pharmaceutical industry are accurate, and that no amount of ingenuity in accounting has obscured the position from which we are negotiating. As is usual with his practice on social security matters as well as on health matters, some of the hon. Gentleman's figures come completely off the top of his head. I am afraid the hon. Gentleman's figures are far less reliable than Treasury figures, DHSS figures or those from the industry.

In considering the actual rates of return, those for individual companies have to be a matter of commercial confidence. It is known that the overall target rate of return under the system we inherited from the Labour Government was 25 per cent. and above that a so-called grey area with the discretion of a further 10 per cent. What I have just announced reduces the overall target to 21 per cent. and the grey area to one third of whatever is the company's target. The figures the hon. Gentleman quotes — and some he disapproves of are for the more successful companies—were set under rules laid down by the Government of which he was a member. What I have announced is a significant reduction.

What I have announced represents a saving in a full year of over £100 million on the drugs bill of the National Health Service. The actual profits made by the pharmaceutical industry this year appear to us to be about £200 million. We disallow various costs for the purposes of the scheme. If account were taken of those, the profits might be up to £250 million. Nevertheless, we are making substantial savings in the drugs bill. We expect that pharmaceutical companies will react by cutting costs to some extent, thereby protecting their profits, which is good for investment and employment in this country.

Against this, the savings we are making are a substantial and significant response to genuine fears. I think that this is a fair balance between the interests of drug users, that is, the National Health Service, and the interests of those who work and earn a great deal of money for the country in the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that the first part of his statement on price freezing and the reduction of profits is welcome and will be seen as a positive contribution to savings in the Health Service? Will he also accept, however, that what he has said on drug substitution is a great disappointment and regrettably will be seen as a triumph for vested interests in the medical and pharmaceutical professions over the needs of patients? Does he agree that there is no reason clinically why substitution should not take place, bearing in mind that hospital doctors already use it, and that until generic prescribing is firmly in place the real savings to the Health Service on the drugs bill cannot be fully manifested?

Mr. Clarke

I have great respect for my hon. Friend's views on these matters, but I would answer him with a rhetorical question; what is he seeking to achieve in what he advocates? If he is seeking further reductions in the drugs bill, he should bear in mind that the announcement I have made is estimated to save over £100 million per annum on the National Health Service drugs bill. The House must realise that to go beyond that at the expense of the pharmaceutical industry would jeopardise much research-based manufacture in this country.

On generic substitution, I would accept as the best estimate of what might be saved the figure given by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), that is about £25 million, but we could not achieve that and also make the other savings I have described without causing damage to the industry. If, however, the intention is to improve the prescribing practice of doctors, the best way of doing that is, as we propose, to strengthen our guidance and give further assistance to enable doctors to make their own choices about generic prescribing when they deem it suitable for their patients. Again, I respect my hon. Friend's view on this, but many doctors, though not all, were seriously concerned about a suggestion that they should prescribe one formulation of a drug which they judged suitable and then a pharmacist unknown to them who might dispense the drug anywhere throughout the country would use his judgment to substitute what he thought to be an effective alternative formulation. In hospitals doctors know their pharmacists and can have a hospital policy; I do not think it the analogy with general practitioners is altogether accurate.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-trent, South)

Is the Minister aware that he has adopted a cowardly approach in running away from generic substitution? He cuts a very sorry figure, giving way to vested interests. He has heard neither hysterical language from my hon. Friend nor rhetorical questions. He has heard reasoned requests to change his mind. Will he recognise that the drug industry's demand for protection is a demand for excessive profits which are still far too high? Will he please think again on this important issue?

Mr. Clarke

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to save money, then he should realise that by our announcement we are saving the maximum that can be saved. If he wishes to improve prescribing practices, we propose to campaign to do that. We will not be drawn into a vendetta against drug companies and their profits solely for what appear to be totally abstract reasons which some hon. Members feel are worth pursuing.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

I welcome the Minister's statement indicating considerable savings in expenditure on the National Health Service, but will he disregard to a fair degree the continuing reference to the percentage of profits made by pharmaceutical companies? Will he confirm that a great deal of the so-called profits are reinvested in research and development and that sometimes the development of an effective drug takes many years, so that the percentages which are being bandied about are somewhat illusory?

Mr. Clarke

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. It is worth bearing in mind that the percentage profit we use for the purposes of the scheme is slightly notional. It is a longstanding convention that historic costs are taken as the basis for it and that is the basis of the figures I have given. When judging the profitability of the industry as a whole, he is right to draw attention to the fact that a great deal of it is necessary to provide an incentive for research and development. Moreover, much of the profits earned by the drugs industry are profits on exports which produce a substantial benefit to the economy of the country.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Is the Minister aware that there will be widespread condemnation of what will be regarded as an inadequate response to the recommendations of the all-party Public Accounts Committee with the guidance of the Comptroller and Auditor General? That, together with the complete ignoring of the main recommendations of the Greenfield report, will be seen clearly for what it is—a complete and utter sell-out to the drug companies which will still be laughing all the way to their respective banks.

Mr. Clarke

Before I rose to make the statement I knew perfectly well that whatever I said would be greeted with anger and disappointment by the hon. Gentleman, just as I know perfectly well that there will be a lot of resistance and anger in some parts of the pharmaceutical industry about what I have proposed. That is an inevitable part of the process. The fact is that the savings to the National Health Service drugs bill which I have announced go beyond some of the savings that were recently being urged upon us by some of our critics. They do not fall far short of even the wildest figures that were urged upon me by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) when she spoke for the Opposition.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Can my hon. and learned Friend say anything about the position of pharmacists in chemists' shops as a result of his statement? Many people will be most anxious that chemists' shops which are badly needed in many areas should not be closed. Does he recognise that, while he has much support for stopping the rate of increase in the drugs bill in the Health Service, he is perhaps shooting the wrong fox because many doctors prescribe drugs over and over again for patients without even bothering to examine them? The waste of drugs in that way is severe.

Mr. Clarke

The payments we make to pharmacists are on the basis of reimbursements for the cost of the drugs that they supply to patients. Our action on parallel importing will help to meet one of the complaints of the Public Accounts Committee that we sometimes reimburse chemists for more than the amount they have paid for the drugs they have dispensed. Nevertheless, there are problems between ourselves and the pharmacists, most of which were not intended by either side of that negotiating table. I look forward to more negotiations with the pharmaceutical services negotiating committee in the new year both about our present difficulties and about a better form of contract for them for the future. This should help to guard against the closure of rural pharmacies which my hon. Friend is right to be concerned about.

As to the prescribing practices of doctors, I endorse what my hon. Friend said. It is important that we should act on the other 13 recommendations of Greenfield, as we are already doing, and give further guidance and assistance to doctors in following proper and economical prescribing practices.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. In fairness to the Northern Ireland debates, I intend to allow questions on this important subject to continue until half past four.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

While we welcome the advertising cutback on allowable revenue, and the principle of the system, the alliance is bitterly disappointed about the Minister's failure to do anything about generic substitution, as he could have done without alienating the family practitioners, who would probably prefer some generic substitution to the cash limits being imposed. Does he accept that the pharmaceutical industry must remain independent because not one therapeutic substance has come out of the nationalised pharmaceutical industry in the Soviet Union?

Mr. Clarke

I note what the hon. Gentleman says about generic substitution, but we have reduced the target rate of return on capital by an average of four percentage points to bring it down to about 20 per cent. We have also made significant changes on promotional activity, about which there is strong feeling in the medical profession and among the general public. Given the savings that we can make from the package of measures that I have proposed, generic substitution would not have been a significant or worthwhile addition.

A number of GPs and pharmacists have raised problems about generic substitution. One is that of the responsibility to patients if anything goes wrong when neither the doctor, the pharmacist, nor the people who pay the pharmacist are clear about what drug has been dispensed to the patient, regardless of what it said on the doctor's prescription.

I endorse the hon. Gentleman's final comment. Those who attack the pharmaceutical industry simply because it is profit making ignore the fact that it is a highly successful industry, making valuable medical innovations and earning substantial profits overseas. The state-owned industries of the eastern bloc have never produced any significant innovation, and if the Labour party came back into power a state-owned industry in this country would not make progress either.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

It is not a convention of the House that I have to declare an interest when a Minister makes a statement, but I do so. As I think the House knows, I am a director of a pharmaceutical company. I am also involved in the Health Service, being a member of a regional health authority. I therefore have a double interest.

I was one in the pharmaceutical industry who had recommended to it that it should look again at its figures on sales promotion and profit to see whether they could be tempered in a way similar to the Minister's proposals. I take that view from within the industry. however, I warn my hon. and learned Friend not to go too far. It is possible to go just over the limit in reducing not so much promotion costs but profits, with the result that the industry will find it not worthwhile to continue production of the valuable drugs in this country. [Interruption.] Those who know nothing about the industry can make sneering, jeering remarks, but we are talking about one of the most successful industries, not in making money but in innovating and breaking new ground. My hon. and learned Friend must not go too far in this direction because, although the earnings and profits may seem high at 21 per cent., in its first 10 years a drug does not earn a penny. It takes all of that time to pass the approved list.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend was interrupted by hon. Members who have no knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry to set against his own. I agree that the companies will find the reduction in profit levels and the changes that we have announced on promotional costs significant. We have not only reduced the profit figures but are proposing to change the method by which we control the level of expenditure on sales promotions above the prescribed limit. That will produce a significant reduction in the level of sales promotion on drugs to the benefit of the best companies and the patients. We shall heed my hon. Friend's warnings, but I think that we have struck the right balance between preserving a successful industry and making sure that we use our bargaining influence as a customer to make savings for the NHS.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

On the hon. and learned Gentleman's choice of exhortation and campaigning rather than action on generic prescribing, I remind him that every Minister since lain Macleod has tried the same campaign. There have been three separate issues under both Labour and Conservative Governments on special ways in which prescribers' notes and bulletins can be used. Each year, 80 per cent. of the drugs prescribed in the NHS are brand names and the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, formed of qualified dispensing chemists, reckoned that on 10 drugs alone there would be a saving of £25 million.

In his discussions on promotions, will the Minister pursue three things? First, is it necessary to have one commercial traveller for every nine GPs? Secondly, is it necessary to have 6,600,000 free journals issued every three months to promote drugs? Thirdly, will the hon. and learned Gentleman attempt to stop the racket whereby a commercial traveller pays a doctor £10 for every person he is prepared to have on a new drug, calling it clinical investigation, when it is really sales promotion?

Mr. Clarke

I realise that I follow an honourable succession of Ministers of Governments of both parties in continuing to campaign on generic substitution. When it comes to professional opinion on generic substitution, I have not claimed that it is in our favour—it is divided. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain had a highly contentious debate on the subject and passed a resolution which it would admit was distinctly inconclusive about what is good professional practice.

As to the number of travellers or representatives, and the amount of advertising and journals, the hon. Gentleman will find on examination that we have made significant changes in the level of sales promotion allowed and, compared with the actual level of sales promotion, we shall start imposing penalties on future levels at 25 per cent. below that. That could lead to important changes and improvements.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that there are tens of thousands of households in which the bathroom and bedroom cupboards are overloaded with NHS drugs that have never been used, and that this is caused by widespread over-subscribing by doctors? If he can convince the medical profession that it needs to do something about that, he will save the NHS a great deal of money.

Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that if he can stop doctors having loads of material through their posts, and callers from foreign drug companies trying to sell them all kinds of pills and what-have-you, he will also help the medical profession?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with all of my hon. Friend's points. For the reasons that I have given, I think that the measures that we have announced will have a beneficial effect on the profession. To put things in perspective, the prescribing of drugs in this country per head of population is lower than that of most Western European countries. One has to persuade the doctors and the patients that a sensible level of prescribing is required, but our doctors and patients are less inclined to look for a pill on every occasion and for every purpose than is the case in other countries of Western Europe.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Does the Minister accept that not all who may be critical of his statement are just out to get at the industry, because we recognise its strength? However, will his attempts to control the promotion of drugs and costs include stricter supervision of the amount of money spent in catering both for doctors and pharmacists who may purchase the drugs? How soon will limits be set on the importing of medicine?

Mr. Clarke

The costs of so-called hospitality and gifts are not allowed under the scheme at present and have never been accepted as an allowable expense. That kind of activity will continue to be disallowed under the new arrangements that I have announced today.

Regarding the new proposals on the importation of drugs, we hope to issue the consultation document shortly. Indeed, I hope that the technical details will go out from the Department tomorrow.

Mr. Meacher

The Minister has not answered two key questions. The Comptroller and Auditor General said that the DHSS machinery for assessing the industry's efficiency was inadequate. What new supervisory mechanisms is the Minister proposing to prevent the profit control mechanism going out of control? Secondly, why has he rejected the Greenfield report on generic substitution when a compromise agreement had been reached informally, I understand, with the BMA whereby general practitioners who did not wish for generic substitution by a pharmacist would be able to show that on the prescription?

Mr. Clarke

On the first point, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the assessment machinery that was introduced by his Government has got absolutely out of control. The only judgment of efficiency that has to be made in the scheme is that of assessing the target rate of return set for each company. It is a difficult task to assess each company in relation to its capital investment and its research base activity in this country, its export earnings and its efficiency. But I think that the job is done effectively and well within the limitations of what is practical. What the Government have announced is a sharp reduction in the resulting cost to the National Health Service.

On generic substitution the best estimate I have of the savings likely to come from the so-called halfway house that some of the BMA found acceptable is £5 million in a full year. In fact, it did not amount to much more than a re-jigging of the present form upon which the doctor prescribed. It still gave rise to all the problems about responsibility for patients if anything went wrong, as I have already indicated. Given that we are reducing our costs substantially, and that we can proceed to encourage better generic prescribing, I see no point in going in for that kind of compromise proposal worth little money but opening up a considerable amount of professional controversy.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the Minister has given some very long answers and as several Conservative Members and several Opposition Members want to ask questions, I wonder whether you would take, say one question or a couple of questions from Conservative and Opposition Members bearing in mind that I am not anxious to be called but other hon. Members are ahead of me in the queue? In any case, I think it is a sell-out by the Tory party to the Government to finance the Tory party and the Tory Members of Parliament who are directors to line their pockets——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry; I should like to be able to accede to the hon. Gentleman's request, butin fairness to the House I have to protect the Northern Ireland business. The House has had a good run on the statement. No doubt we shall return to the subject on other occasions.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You referred in your comments to protection of hon. Members. Would it not be proper of hon. Members to request that we be protected against Ministers who make their replies in a very elongated form, thereby denying the right not only of opposition Back Benchers but of Conservative Back Benchers to ask their questions? Should it not go on the record that many of us were precluded from asking questions by the Minister's long answers?

Mr. Speaker

Let us not get into a great argument about this. If the hon. Gentleman had been watching me, he would have seen that I was getting equally exasperated by the length of some questions from Back-Bench Members.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

A number of us represent several hundred people who work in this industry and we ought to be representing them in this matter. When you said at twenty minutes past four, Mr. Speaker, that you would allow the questions to run until half past four, according to my count about five questions were fitted in.

Mr. Speaker

I think that it would be totally unfair to the House if on every occasion I allowed the questions to run to the end; it would be impossible. I have to protect the subsequent business of the House.

Mr. Freud

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) asked you to give a ruling on the House Buyers Bill in respect of the eligibility of solicitors who are Members of the House and you said that you would give a ruling. Will you at the same time — and I ask this for the sake of convenience — give a ruling in respect of people intending to purchase houses who are Members of the House because they are equally affected by the Bill and, like solicitors, have a vested interest in it?

Mr. Andrew MacKay

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would not wish ever to question a decision of yours, Mr. Speaker, but I believe that only four Members of the House still wish to ask questions of the Minister on the statement. I suspect that all of them have constituency interests. As you said earlier that Christmas is getting near, would you give us the benefit of the doubt on this occasion?

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that Christmas is not as near as all that. In fairness to the hon. Gentleman, I fully understand his frustration, but this might be said on any day on any statement.

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The statement on the drugs industry has taken so long because of the lengthy replies. Are you aware that thousands of people outside the House believe that the behaviour of the drugs industry has been a major contributor to the cuts in the Health Service and that they would think the less of——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not certain that that is a matter for me.