HL Deb 22 February 1999 vol 597 cc834-6

2.46 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any contingency plans to ensure that local communities do not lose the services of community pharmacies if resale price maintenance on over-the-counter medicines ends.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Restrictive Practices Court has only recently considered the application from the Director-General of Fair Trading for leave to challenge resale price maintenance and has yet to announce its decision. It is premature to conclude that resale price maintenance will end in the near future, or that communities will lose access to pharmacy services as a result. The arguments and evidence have yet properly to be aired before the court. When they are, we will be much better placed to consider the likely consequences and to develop any necessary plans.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her reply. Did she see the public tributes to Mrs. Gill Hawksworth for opening her small Mirfield pharmacy on 28th December in response to a flu epidemic, and helping 300 people, 75 of whom would otherwise have gone to accident and emergency departments or have put further pressure on local doctors? Yet her pharmacy and some 3,000 others will face closure if, perversely, resale price maintenance is ended and nothing is done to secure their survival. Is it not high time that all of us insisted that fair trade is not just about price, but also access, service and meeting the needs of local communities, not least of severely disabled people, the elderly and mothers with young children?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend that the debate about resale price maintenance and access to community pharmacies is much wider than simply about the price of individual products. I am sure that the court will consider all aspects of the issue, including the question of access, before reaching its decision, and that that decision will have to be justified as being in the overall public interest. The Government recognise that community pharmacists are highly trained professionals and that as well as dispensing medicines they provide, as in the case instanced by my noble friend, an easily accessible and highly valued source of advice on a range of health and healthcare matters. We pay tribute to that. As I said in my Answer, I do not think that at this stage we can make any predictions about large numbers of community pharmacies closing. We must consider the basic issue of access to pharmacy services for the population as a whole.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that once one uses resale price maintenance in this way there is no end to the applications that could be used? Therefore, the only logical, if highly undesirable, method of dealing with the matter would be direct grants to such shops.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord has put his finger on the point. As I understand it, the argument which arose during the proceedings on the Competition Bill, and which faces us now, is not about the overall aim—which is ensuring access to high quality primary care, including pharmacy services—but about whether that is best achieved by price control overall; or whether we should develop mechanisms which already exist like the essential small pharmacies scheme, which ensures a minimum level of NHS income for small pharmacies; or ensure in rural areas that there is access to GP dispensing of medicines so that we provide the access but do so in a targeted way.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what representations the Department of Health has made to the OFT? Further, in the light of the debate about the role of community pharmacists, can the noble Baroness say when the Government's community pharmacy strategy is due to be published?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, on the issue of representations, resale price maintenance is a competition matter that is appropriately dealt with by the court. It would not be right for Ministers to intervene in that respect. However, the community pharmacy strategy to which the noble Lord referred is an important element in the way in which we can develop the very vital services that community pharmacists provide. There has been a large number of responses to the invitation from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to comment on this, and he recently held round-table discussions with pharmacy, nursing and medical leaders. There are many ideas floating around and many complicated issues to consider. However, I hope that it will not be too long before we can publish the strategy.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the noble Baroness appreciate that once these community pharmacists—I have supported them on no less than three occasions in your Lordships' House—are closed by the order of the court they can never re-open? Therefore, surely it is wholly unsatisfactory to leave the matter in the air for the decision of a court when the Government can do something to ensure that they are not closed.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, if I may say so. it is not the case that an order of a court would close down a community pharmacy if the argument is around the economic consequences which would flow from the abolition of resale price maintenance and the effect that it might have on the economic viability of individual businesses. I take the point made by the noble Lord that it is important to provide these pharmacy services to all patients who need them. However, there is more than one way of doing so. For example, we could look at health action zones to see whether it would be possible to provide pharmacy services in, say, healthy living centres to maximise benefit to local communities. I accept that there is an issue here that we must address; but, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, I believe that the debate is whether it is best addressed through price controls.

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Montague of Oxford

My Lords, I wanted to ask my noble friend about—

Noble Lords


The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I think it is the feeling of the House that we should move on. I am sure that my noble friend will have another opportunity to put his question.