§ 3. Mr. Turner
To ask the Secretary of State for Health when he last met the Pharmaceutical Services negotiating committee; and what was discussed. 
§ The Minister for Health (Mr. Gerald Malone)
Officials regularly meet the Pharmaceutical Services negotiating committee to discuss issues that affect community pharmacy contractors. Ministers meet the committee whenever it is appropriate.
§ Mr. Turner
I am sure that the Minister will have heard about the committee's anxieties and the cash flow problems that pharmacists are facing because his Department is an extremely bad payer. As he must be aware, small pharmacists in particular are concerned that they are not receiving within a proper time scale payment for prescriptions that they have already dispensed. That is making it impossible for them to solve their cash problems and they are creating redundancies. Should the attitude of the Minister's Department and the Government be causing redundancies at a time of massive unemployment? The Minister should stop his Department being such a bad payer and get on and pay the people the money that the Department owes them.
§ Mr. Malone
I read the briefing note that the hon. Gentleman is clearly using. It misses out a fact that perhaps the pharmacists did not discuss with him—if he had discussions with them and did not just read the note. A voluntary agreement that was negotiated with the pharmacists has been in place for some time. It sets out how the payments are structured so that they can be made as quickly as possible after the Prescription Pricing Authority has processed them. That agreement was highly welcomed when it was put in place and I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that it is being honoured to the letter and payments are being made in the context of the agreement. Of course I recognise that pharmacists are business men and have to run their businesses in a proper way. They make a valuable contribution to the community and if there are any ways of taking that forward that we can discuss with them, I am always happy to do so.
§ Mr. Budgen
Does my hon. Friend agree that, like all other interest groups, pharmacists have a legitimate case? If the Opposition take up the arguments of every interest group in the community and ask the Government to pay 100 per cent. of their claims, public expenditure is bound to get out of control. Although it is certain that the Opposition will temporarily become popular with farmers, lawyers, civil servants and every other interest group that wants to get its snout into the public trough, that is a clear indication that public expenditure under Labour will get grossly out of control.
§ Mr. Malone
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Every time that there is a request for additional funding, the Labour party accedes to it in the same breath as it suggests that taxation can be brought down, but those attitudes are incompatible. Unlike Labour, the pharmacists are always responsible when entering discussions. Last year the global sum from which they were paid was increased by some 2.5 per cent. The pharmacists also agreed to a change in the structure of the payments made to them, so that we can ensure that more payments go to pharmacists who provide more professional services. That was a welcome way to approach added public expenditure for added value. Labour says that payments should go up for no reason.
§ Mr. Ashton
Is the Minister aware that many people on regular prescriptions complain that chemists are giving short weight—that the doctor writes a prescription for 30 tablets but that the chemist dispenses only 24 or 26 tablets? People on regular monthly prescriptions are having to pay as much as one month extra per year because of that short measure. The pharmacists blame the packaging. Nevertheless, many members of the public feel cheated when they have paid more than £5 for a prescription but receive too few tablets. Will the Minister get together with the pharmaceutical and packaging industries to ensure that the customer gets what he pays for?
§ Mr. Malone
Rather curiously, the hon. Gentleman asked a question that might have more point in six months' time, as we introduce patient pack prescribing—which is in its early days and has not yet been generally introduced. Pharmacists must dispense the appropriate medicine according to the doctor's prescription. That will be the case when patient pack prescribing is introduced. It will ensure that the patient is given the appropriate amount of medicine to treat the symptom for which he sought a prescription from the doctor.
§ Mr. Malone
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Community pharmacists play an important role in providing medical care, and it is one that we are extremely keen to encourage through the payment of the professional allowance for displaying pharmacy practice leaflets and health promotion literature. Pharmacists, as health care professionals, are keen to develop that important role.