HL Deb 13 June 2002 vol 636 cc372-5

3.21 p.m.

Lord Dubs

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will encourage manufacturers of medicinal, pharmaceutical, food and other products whose use has safety implications to print instructions and lists of ingredients in type large enough to be read by most people.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the Government will continue to encourage manufacturers to provide clear and accessible information about their products and to promote good practice through specific guidelines on information for medicines, foods and consumer products. All these guidelines already do, or will when published, include recommendations on the minimum size of text.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his Answer. Is he aware that, according to a survey by the RNIB, some 11 million people in this country find it difficult to read medicine labels or information provided by doctors or hospitals; that 3 million people find it impossible to read the labelling on food products and that another 10 million find that difficult; that the problem is exacerbated by small print on coloured backgrounds; and that this has serious safety implications for people who are diabetic, allergy sufferers or for the safe use of products? Will he therefore encourage good practice—as is being put forward by the RNIB and, for example, Lilly UK, a pharmaceutical company—in order to ensure that information is easily accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to read it properly?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the short answer to that is, "Yes". My noble friend is quite right: currently there are some very bad examples, particularly of medicine labelling, which are very difficult for people to understand. Even if they have no visual impairment, the labelling is very difficult to read.

Since the introduction of new guidelines in 1999 the situation has improved. The Medicines Control Agency now has a positive role in vetting the new labels. Many of these new labels are better. If I was allowed to use visual aids in your Lordships' House, I could hold up examples of good practice. Clearly, we need to do better than that. At the moment the Committee on Safety of Medicines is engaged in recommending additional guidance for manufacturers. We hope that those will be introduced later on this year.

Lord Addington

My Lords, can the Minister give us an assurance that the Government are encouraging those involved in labelling to provide back-up in the form of descriptions to those who are selling. If someone simply cannot access the written word, no matter what the type of printing, it will not help.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I think that that brings us to the role of the community pharmacist. I very much agree that that facility ought to be used to give advice to those members of the public who need it. We see the community pharmacist playing an increasingly important role in providing such advice.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, while it is encouraging to hope that the manufacturers and the pharmaceutical companies will recognise their responsibilities in producing readable, larger print labels, if the blind or poorly sighted sectors of the community are affected, is the answer that the use of Braille in some form or another ought to be encouraged? In that way, those who have difficulty reading large print, because they are trained Braille readers may keep out of trouble.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my noble friend is right. It is my understanding that at least one company includes Braille labelling on all its own label range of medicines. My noble friend will be pleased to know that the company is the Co-operative Society.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, has the Minister seen the pieces of plastic that are given out in Denmark, in some cases in chemists' shops? They are about two and a half inches by one inch and are, in effect, a magnifying glass but magnifying plastic. They enable people to see exactly what the ingredients are on small packets, particularly in the case of medicines. If at the moment we hand out plastic spoons for cough mixture, would it not be equally feasible to do that in conjunction with labelling? Some of these blister packs are so small that one cannot read them, even with good sight. One needs a magnifying glass for all the information contained on them.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am not sure that at this moment Denmark is the country to which I particularly would choose to look for good examples! But, that is a very helpful suggestion. I have not seen examples of that, but I should be very happy to look into it.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, the noble Lord has concentrated in his answers on medicines. Will he use his best offices to ensure that food is also properly labelled? Many people with poor eyesight have allergies and need to know what food contains.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Yes, my Lords, there are food labelling regulations which require food labels to be easily visible, clearly legible and indelible. But I agree that there are many examples of poor food labelling. The Food Standards Agency has produced a taskforce report suggesting how the regulations of 1996 could be made more explicit. That is subject to consultation at the moment. Again, I hope that the agency will publish further advice later in the year which will enable us to get much better labelling on food products.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, as we have been talking about eyesight, would not a minimum font size be quite a good idea?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, yes. Within medicines there is a minimum font size in relation to the packaging of labels, which is seven point Didot, which I can reassure noble Lords is very small indeed. That is why we are anxious to produce voluntary guidelines in this country which will encourage manufacturers to go much further and better than the legislative guidelines.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, are garden products included in this? A great many garden products are very dangerous. For instance, if chives which have been sprayed against slugs are eaten, they would not do your child a bit of good.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I believe that that comes under the category of consumer product safety legislation. That requires manufacturers to give clear information about safe use. My understanding is that the relevant government department publishes guidance. I shall draw the comments of the noble Baroness to the relevant department.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of Coeliac disease. I was not aware of it until last year. The Coeliac society, as the Minister is aware, does a first-class job. But is he convinced that the labelling of products by shops and supermarkets for those who suffer from this illness-people do not like to call it a disease because it is not transferable—is adequate?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

No, my Lords; practice is variable and the Government will continue to talk to manufacturers to ensure that as much information as possible is given.