HL Deb 10 May 1923 vol 54 cc102-12

Order of the Day for the adjourned debate on the Third Reading read.

On Question, Bill read 3a.

Clause 2:

Amendment of Section 13 of Dangerous Drags Act, 1920.

2.—(1) The following subsections shall be substituted for subsections (1) and (2) of Section thirteen of the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1920:— (2A) No proceedings for an indictable offence against this Act shall in England or Wales be instituted except by or with the consent of the Attorney-General or by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and no person shall, on conviction for any offence of contravening or failing to comply with any regulation under this Act relating to the keeping of books or the issuing or dispensing of prescriptions containing drugs to which this Act applies, be sentenced to imprisonment without the option of a fine or to pay a fine exceeding fifty pounds, if the court dealing with the case is satisfied that the offence was committed through inadvertence and was not preparatory to or committed in the course of or in connection with the commission or intended commission of any other offence against the Act.

THE EARL OF ONSLOW moved to omit from substituted subsection (2A) the words at the beginning: "No proceedings for an indictable offence against this Act shall in England or Wales be instituted except," and to insert: "Subject as hereinafter provided no person shall in England or Wales be proceeded against by indictment for an offence under this Act unless the proceedings are instituted." The noble Earl said: My Lords, the existing words made all offences indictable and might be read as meaning that the consent of the Attorney-General was required even for summary proceedings. It is really a drafting Amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 8, line 38, leave out from the beginning of the line to "by" in line 10, and insert the said new words.—(The Earl of Onslow.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

EARL BEAUCHAMP had on the Paper two Amendments to the substituted subsection (2A)—namely:— before "any regulation under this Act" to insert: "the conditions of any licence granted by the Secretary of State to supply a drug to which this Act applies or and before "any regulation under this Act "to insert:" the conditions of any licence granted by the Secretary of State to a person, firm, or body corporate, whose business is wholly or mainly that of supplying, by wholesale, drugs and medical requisites to hospitals, medical men and pharmacists to supply a drug to which this Act applies or.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the two Amendments standing in my name have been put down in the hope that one of them will appeal to the noble Earl in charge of the Bill. He has been good enough, as he always is, to consult with me on the subject of the first Amendment that I placed on the Paper and, when that did not meet with his wishes, I put down a second one which I hope may be more fortunate. If your Lordships will look at that Amendment you will see that the point is that it would exempt from the heavier penalties offences which are proved to be committed only by inadvertence and by mistake.

The position with regard to dangerous drugs and poisons is really rather interesting. You have the same position with regard to a number of very dangerous drugs which are now, unfortunately, being too much circulated in this country, and the question which naturally comes before our administrators is how they should try to prevent these dangerous drugs from circulating in the country. There are two people against whom you can proceed. You can proceed against either the manufacturer or the retailer. The contention that I wish to put before your Lordships on this occasion is that the retailer who, by inadvertence, commits a technical offence against this Act, should not be subject to such heavy penalties. I believe that, generally speaking, in regard to these dangerous drugs the proper person to proceed against is the manufacturer. There are not so many of them and they are easier to get at. It is easier to control the factories than the retailers. There is an interesting example of this in connection with chlorodyne. At one moment chlorodyne contained a dangerous drug, and instead of that being dealt with by proceeding against the retailers the manufacturers eliminated the dangerous drug from the manufacture of chlorodyne, and now chlorodyne is being sold as an innocuous medicine throughout the country. But it is so sold as a result of the act of the manufacturers, and not as the result of action being taken against the retailers. I think that is really the wiser and probably the surer way of dealing with the matter.

Will your Lordships bear with me while I read some figures with regard to the sale of dangerous drugs? These have been supplied to me by a large company which deals with these drugs. In the course of last year they sold £238 worth, of which the cost was £163. The gross profits therefore were £74. I omit the shillings and pence. The working expenses were £47, leaving so far a profit of £26. Then there were fees for licences and also the cost of making returns to the Home Office which came to a total of over £23. If, therefore, your Lordships will accept my figures, the net profit for the whole year 1922, on a gross sale of £238, was only £3 9s. 1d. It is obvious that if you are going to threaten these people who are selling these goods with an enormous penalty, such as that which is provided for in this Bill, it is likely that they will be unwilling to continue to supply these goods. They are goods which are dangerous in the hands of inexperienced people, but they are most important to hospitals and to well-qualified doctors.

Under the law as it exists proceedings were taken against one of these retailers who, by inadvertence, had left unlocked a cupboard in which some dangerous drugs were kept. That was not a great offence, but for an offence of that kind in future a person will be liable to a fine of something like £1,000. At the present moment I think he would be liable to a fine of £100. Of course, in an ordinary way the magistrates would not inflict the maximum penalty. They would probably inflict one of £10 or £5, but if in future the fine, as is proposed by this Bill, is going to be multiplied by a hundred it is obvious that a very serious hardship will be inflicted upon these retailers. In these circumstances I venture to suggest that my second Amendment, which has as its object, and I hope as its effect, simply that of relieving the inadvertent retailer who by a mistake of his own or by his agent's mistake, offends against the law, will meet with the approval of His Majesty's Government. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 4, line 1, after ("with") insert ("the conditions of any licence granted by the Secretary of State to a person, firm, or body corporate, whose business is wholly or mainly that of supplying, by wholesale drugs and medical requisites to hospitals, medical men and pharmacists to supply a drug to which this Act applies or").—(Earl Beauchamp.)


My Lords, the noble Earl, in moving this Amendment, laid stress upon the purely technical offence which a breach of the condition of the licence would be. A concession was made in another place with respect to failure to comply with the regulations relating to book-keeping or the issue and dispensing of prescription". The maximum fine was reduced to £50. As regards prescriptions, only doctors, dentists, veterinary surgeons and pharmacists were concerned. The wholesale drug houses, unless they were also pharmacists, could not make up prescriptions. But the concession does apply to wholesale druggists with respect to the keeping of their books. The effect of the Amendment of the noble Earl would be to extend that concession so as to include the contravention of the conditions of a licence. That is a matter different from the concession which was made in another place. In the second Amendment which has been put down after some correspondence on the subject the concession is limited to wholesale druggists only, but in practice it is difficult to do that, because, I submit, there is really no case for preferential treatment of one particular class of trader. If this concession were made to the drug houses every other trader who carries on business under a licence would prefer a claim for equality of treatment.

I should also like to point out that great difficulties would arise in administration. The Amendment refers to those whose business is that of supplying drugs wholesale to hospitals, doctors and pharmacists, but the wholesale druggists, commonly known as the drug houses, carry on other kinds of business as well. They supply what is known as druggists' sundries. They also supply other wholesale houses and, in addition, do considerable export business. There would be considerable difficulty, I venture to say, in determining whether any particular firm did or did not come within the scope of this Amendment. But I think the main objection to my noble friend's Amendment is that failure to observe the conditions of a licence may often be a serious offence and not at all a technical one. It would be quite different from the offences that are covered by the concession which was made in another place and which are carried out in Clause 2, subsection (2 A).

I admit that some of these matters in regard to the licences may be described as technical and minor concerns, but there is also the matter of the custody of drugs. I do not know the case mentioned by the noble Earl in which a prosecution was instituted against a druggist who left some drugs unlocked, but I would point out that the conditions are very stringent, and that contravention of them may have important and serious consequences. These matters have been brought to the cognisance of the Courts and in certain cases in which there were breaches of the condition of the licence the Courts have taken a serious view of the matter. The noble Earl seems to think that possibly these conditions of the licence and the increase of the penalties might deter drug houses from supplying doctors and hospitals with their drugs. These provisions have been in force since 1921, and I understand that no serious complaint has been received of any hardships or difficulties in the matter. The suggestions of the noble Earl were brought forward on two occasions in another place, and my right hon. friend the Home Secretary was unable to accept them. I hope, therefore, he will not insist on his Amendment, because I am afraid the Government will be unable to accept it.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

LORD DYNEVOR moved to add to the substituted subsection (2 A): "Provided that it shall not be an offence against this Act for a pharmaceutical chemist to administer or apply personally to any other person in an emergency and in good faith without any medical prescription any of the said drugs to which Part III of this Act applies or any preparation there of for the purpose of relieving severe pain."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am moving this Amendment to meet cases of emergency. The Dangerous Drugs Act, 1920, and this Bill, and the Regulations which have already been issued, are extremely drastic. Perhaps that is natural, because a great effort is being made to suppress the illicit drug traffic. But cases have come to my notice where persons have suffered extreme agony because no doctor was at hand who could administer morphia or cocaine. There was the case mentioned in The Times of a well-known man, a lawyer in the country, who injured his eye whilst practising in Court. He suffered extreme agony and was unable to get relief for many hours because no doctor was available who could give him a prescription, and no chemist dared to apply the very simple remedy of a little cocaine solution. A chemist cannot give any cocaine or morphia without a doctor's prescription.

There was also another case mentioned on the Second Reading of this Bill in another place by Sir Sidney Russell-Wells, where a doctor himself was suddenly seized with a violent attack of colic. He could get no opium which was the proper alleviative because under the Regulations a doctor is forbidden to prescribe for himself. He could not get anything from a shemist, and he had to go through agonies for hours because no doctor was available. This would probably arise time after time in country districts where there is only one doctor practising. If a chemist gives a drug without a doctor's order he is liable to a fine of £200 and imprisonment, and this Bill increases the fine to £1,000, or ten years penal servitude, or both. It is not a very happy outlook for the chemist. No chemist, even in cases of most extreme urgency, would run the risk of giving morphia or cocaine, although I grant that the Bill has been modified slightly in saying that no prosecution can take place except with the consent of the Attorney-General or by the Director of Public Prosecutions. This applies to chemists and others.

My Amendment applies only to chemists. He must administer the drug himself. He cannot give it to anybody else to administer or apply. It will be no use anyone coming to him and saying: "There is someone in a neighbouring house suffering agonies of pain; will you give me some morphia?" My Amendment would not allow that. It would allow the chemist to go to that house and administer it himself. In the second place it must be a case of emergency, and in the third place it must be given in good faith. I think the public need a little consideration. Even if by chance some drug taker got a chemist to administer one dose by fraud it would be better than that members of the general public should suffer hours of agony. After all, Acts of Parliament are made for man not man for Acts of Parliament. I hope my noble friend will think my Amendment is reasonable and will accept it.

Amendment moved— Page 4, line 11, at end insert the said proviso.—(Lord Dynevor.)


My Lords, before the noble Earl replies I should like to ask him a question on the Amendment. I have no doubt that there is no excuse for my ignorance on the matter, but this Bill has been pushed on somewhat rapidly. What I want to know is what is Part III of this Bill. I am unable to see from my perusal of it what is called Part III of the Bill by my noble friend in his Amendment, and it may by chance refer to some other Act. Without knowing that it is impossible to interpret the Amendment because it deals with such drugs to which Part III applies. I was going to suggest to my noble friend that if there is any chance of the Amendment being accepted it would be wiser to move it without the last words "for the purpose of relieving severe pain," because there may be some drugs in the Poisonous Drugs Act which might be used for the purpose of saving life and not of relieving pain. Without knowing what the drugs are as mentioned in Part III it is impossible to interpret the Amendment. If they are mere drugs then no doubt the words are all right. Perhaps the noble Earl will interpret the Amendment when he replies.


With the permission of the House may I say that the drugs referred to are——


Is this quite in order?


I would appeal to the noble Earl. The noble Lord has asked permission to speak again. It is quite right to interpret the Rules of your Lordships' House occasionally, but a noble Lord who is in charge of a particular Amendment is often allowed to rise again in order to explain the meaning of his Amendment. Leave is always given.


I have no objection. I was only anxious to take the opportunity of pointing out that it would have been much more convenient if we had discussed this on Committee stage and not on Third Reading.


I entirely agree.


I will reply to both the points that have been raised. The drugs referred to in Part III are, "morphine, cocaine, ecgonine, and diamorphine, commonly known as heroin, and their respective salts and medicinal opium" etc. As regards the point raised by the noble Earl, who has asked me why I did not raise this question on Committee stage, may I say that the Second Reading was taken one day and, to my great surprise, the Committee stage on the following day, which allowed me no time to prepare Amendments.


Hear, hear!


The effect of the Amendment would be to allow a chemist to administer these drugs without medical direction to any person who came to his shop and said that he was suffering severe pain and no doctor was available. It is very unusual, I think, for a doctor not to be as readily available as a chemist. There are as many doctors as there are chemists; but that is a minor point I should add that the Regulations to which my noble friend refers have now been enforced for eighteen months, and the attention of the Home Office has not been drawn to the matter officially, nor, I think, have any representations been received. I would point out to my noble friend that to give chemists a statutory-right—for this is what it would amount to under the Amendment—to administer these drugs at their own discretion would be a very serious matter indeed.

It would open a serious loophole for the evasion of the Act, as I think my noble friend admits; in fact, he quoted an illustration of the fact. Supposing a person who is addicted to the habit of taking morphia or cocaine goes to a chemist's establishment and says that he is Suffering severe pain on account of his not being able to get his usual dose. In those circumstances the chemist would be entitled to give him what he asked for, and of course that would open the door to considerable abuse. This Amendment would place the chemist in a semi-medical position, and I think this would be strongly criticised by the medical profession generally, because these particular drugs, especially one drug which my noble friend mentioned, cocaine, cannot really be safely administered by persons who have not had a medical training.

Even if the Government were able to view the proposal with more favour than they can accord it, I am afraid, at present, I do not think it would be possible to introduce a statutory provision in the Bill. If it were necessary to make a provision of this kind the proper method would be by a modification of the existing Regulations. A provision in an Act of Parliament is unnecessary. If a modification of the Regulations were demanded, the request would naturally be most carefully considered, but the provision would have to be very carefully safeguarded to avoid such contingencies as I have mentioned. But it is not really necessary in any circumstances to include such a provision in the Act of Parliament. I may add that the Pharmaceutical Society themselves, though I understand that they have seen this Amendment, did not suggest it and do not officially support it. I very much hope that my noble friend will not press the Amendment any further. Any representations that may be made with regard to the Regulations will, of course, be most carefully considered in my right hon. friend's Department.


My Lords, I hope my noble friend will not press this Amendment, because, as it stands, it really does not "read," and while there is much to be said for the Amendment on its merits—though I do not moan to say that I think that on its merits it prevails—one cannot insert in an Act of Parliament an Amendment which actually does not "read." I would point out to the noble Lord that there is no Part III of this Act, and therefore the Amendment cannot be inserted in the form in which it stands. I am entirely in the hands of the House, but the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, has made an offer that the Regulations issued under the Bill will be carefully considered, and this is a more regular way of dealing with the matter. I cannot make any promise, but if your Lordships are willing to trust the Home Office in respect of these Regulations I think that will be the simplest way. Otherwise, the only thing for us to do would he not to pass the Bill now, in order that my noble friend might put this Amendment down in a form which really corresponds with the tenor of the Bill itself.


Does the noble Lord wish to press his Amendment?



Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


The Amendment to Clause 2 which stands in my name is purely drafting

Amendment moved— Page 4, line 11, at end insert ("Provided that the provisions of this subsection prohibiting proceedings by indictment unless the proceedings are instituted by or with the consent of the Attorney-General or by the Director of Public Prosecutions, shall not apply where the person charged claims in pursuance of Section seventeen of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, to he tried by a jury").—(The Earl of Onslow.)


Am I to understand that this is an Amendment which has already been passed over, and which precedes on the Marshalled List of Amendments the Amendment with which we have just dealt?


The Rule of your Lordships' House is quite clear. We have not passed the place in the Bill where these words are sought to be inserted. We are exactly at that place.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 6:

Short title, interpretation and extent.

6.—(1) This Act may be cited as the Dangerous Drugs and Poisons (Amendment) Act, 1923.


My Lords, my Amendment to this clause is drafting, and is merely intended to provide a convenient title.

Amendment moved— Page 7, line 8, at end insert ("and the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1920, and this Act in so far as it amends that Act may be cited together as the Dangerous Drugs Acts, 1920 and 1923").—(The Earl of Onslow.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.