HL Deb 09 December 1964 vol 262 cc88-90

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the concern among family doctors over their proposal to abolish all National Health Service prescription charges and whether any consultations have taken place with the medical profession in respect of this proposal.]


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister of Health is aware that at the Annual Representative Meeting of the British Medical Association this year a resolution was passed withdrawing the Association's long-standing opposition to prescription charges. He is to discuss this with representatives of the profession to-morrow.


My Lords, whilst thanking the noble Lord for that reply, may I ask the Government whether they are aware that many family doctors of all grades and in all areas have expressed grave concern at the arbitrary removal of all these charges? Are the Government aware that many wage-earners can well afford to pay the charges, that abuses can easily happen, and that doctors who are already overworked will be further encumbered by this policy?


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have not canvassed the opinion of all doctors in all areas. With regard to "arbitrary" abolition, may I say that this has been the policy of the Labour Party for many years and the decision is not made arbitrarily. As to the work-load on general practitioners and their fear that it may be added to, Her Majesty's Government do not think that a prescription charge is the best method of reducing the heavy work-load. Indeed, many doctors feel that the best way is to examine the patient properly and then prescribe without having to worry too much about what medicine is to cost.


My Lords, may I ask whether the noble Lord has read the letters in the British Medical Journal, which leave no doubt as to the attitude of many doctors to the policy; and will he urge on his right honourable friend the need to think very carefully before going forward with this policy?


My Lords, I have not read all the letters. It is, however, clear that until recently the majority of doctors in this country were in favour of the abolition of prescription charges. Indeed, the evidence they gave to the Hinchliffe Committee made this quite clear. It was only at the last Annual Representative Meeting of the British Medical Association that a change of policy took place; and one may guess that doctors were unhappy for many reasons and that this was reflected in their decision.


My Lords, as the noble Lord said that doctors will be glad not to have to worry about the cost of these prescriptions, may I ask whether it is not correct that the cost to the country will be £25 million a year?


My Lords, I think that is doubtful; but one cannot predict in advance what the; cost will be. When I said that doctors will not have to worry about the cost of the prescription, I should have said "about the cost of the prescription to the patient". One of the effects of the charges: is that doctors have over-prescribed in order to give the patient who is poor as much medicine as they can for the two shillings.


My Lords, is it not right to say that for many years doctors, who are people of high principle, have supported the policy that the prescription charge was unfair to the poorest in the country; and would not the noble Lord agree that it was probably on the grounds of expediency only that three or four months ago they changed their policy, because they felt that the family doctor had not been sufficiently protected by the previous Government?


My Lords, I think that the first underlying point of my noble friend's question is certainly true: that the prescription charges bear heavily on the poorest section of the community. Many people on National Assistance whom I know personally are unwilling to get prescriptions, because it is an extra burden that they have to meet and cannot afford: many are entitled to claim relief but do not do so because of the technical difficulties involved. With regard to the second point of my noble friend's question, I do not think I should try to read the minds of the British Medical Association.


My Lords, surely the noble Lord must be aware that those on National Assistance do not have to pay the prescription charges and that there are no technical difficulties involved.


Yes, my Lords, the "noble Lord" is aware that they have to pay for them and then claim reimbursement. This is the difficulty.