HC Deb 27 March 1984 vol 57 cc133-5
13. Mr. Campbell-Savours

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received from the British Medical Association on parallel imports.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

The British Medical Association has replied to our consultation document on parallel imports, giving a general welcome to our proposals. It has made a number of detailed comments, which are being considered carefully along with the others that we have received.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is true that prescription-only drugs are available from parallel importers without prescriptions? What is the Government's response to the ABPI suggestion to its members that it should not cooperate with the Government in evaluating the hazards of parallel imports?

Mr. Clarke

There have been some worrying newspaper reports suggesting that some importers will supply through the post drugs to those who apply for them without checking whether they are qualified pharmacists. It is illegal to distribute drugs in that way and the Government will expect the law to be enforced. I have no evidence of the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries withdrawing any co-operation from the Government. They have given us their representations, along with others, on parallel importing and we hope to produce our final proposals as soon as possible.

Sir Dudley Smith

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that it is nothing short of immoral that some pharmacists are importing cheap foreign drugs and selling them to the NHS at full British prices? What does he intend to do about this?

Mr. Clarke

We have issued a consultation document, which shows that we shall close a loophole that has appeared in the present regulations, which allows large quantities of drugs to be imported without a licence. At the same time, we shall set up a proper licensing arrangement for imports from the EC. The consultations have thrown up many conflicting detailed points, but we realise the urgency of the matter and hope to sort it out as quickly as possible.

Mr. Ashley

When the Minister speaks of cheap foreign goods, he refers to drugs that are produced in Britain and exported cheaply. Is he aware that the British pharmaceutical industry is damaging the National Health Service by charging it higher prices than it charges comparable health services in Europe? The Health Service should use parallel imports at lower prices, provided that the DHSS exercises quality control. Can the Minister confirm that the pharmaceutical industry has refused to cooperate with quality control?

Mr. Clarke

The reason for such movements is that different countries have differing systems for setting drug prices, which means that certain drugs may be cheaper in some countries at different times. Changes in exchange rates may also affect prices and good entrepreneurs can buy drugs more cheaply abroad and import them into this country in competition with the identical drugs produced here; it works both ways. Recently, Britain was a major source of parallel imports to EEC countries because the drugs could be bought more cheaply here. We have negotiated a fair price arrangement with the pharmaceutical industry, which saves the National Health Service £100 million a year. It is completely untrue that any sector of the pharmaceutical industry is refusing to co-operate with the Government on safety.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that some drugs coming to Britain through parallel importing are not as safe as British proprietary brands, yet imported drugs are dispensed by chemists as if they were proprietary drugs? Could not such a practice put at risk the health of those relying on dispensing pharmacists to give them a drug that will work in the way required by the prescribing doctor?

Mr. Clarke

That is our major concern. Although we have no evidence at present of patients being injured by imported drugs, we need to eliminate that risk. Where the drugs involved are the same, we must be sure how they have been handled, where they came from, that individual batches can be checked back and that instructions are given in English for English patients. We are working rapidly to solve those problems.

Mr. Dobson

Will the Minister confirm that the reason why British pharmacists find it cheaper to buy drugs abroad is that drugs are cheaper in western Europe because western European Governments have forced their pharmaceutical industries to keep down drug prices? Is it not time that the British Government followed suit?

Mr. Clarke

That is far too simplistic an analysis. For the reasons that I gave, some drugs will sometimes be cheaper in western Europe than in Britain, and at other times drugs will be cheaper here. That is because people are playing the market. The Government are concerned, however, with patient safety. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith), we hope to produce a workable system to bring us a supply of drugs at a fair and competitive price, while protecting people against drugs that have not been handled properly.