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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, that is not a bad try from the noble Lord. As he has just ribbed my noble friend for asking questions to which he could know the answer, I cannot think why the noble Lord, Lord Peston, asks me questions to which he knows the answers.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, does the Minister agree that he complimented, quite rightly, the management which helped to create those figures but that the engineers and skilled workmen, with the essential agreements brought about by their trade unions, also deserve a mention?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord always asks the most anodyne of questions. The answer is that I agree with him.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, is the Minister prepared to acknowledge the growing contribution of this country's newly reconstituted motor cycle industry, notably Triumph, which is exporting as many motor cycles now as it can make?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Viscount for making a contribution of considerably greater help than the one made by his noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie who seems to have vanished now that he has divested himself of his question.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the last figure he gave I think the decimal point had slipped three times? He is not alone in that. Winston Churchill and Alec Home both had trouble with their damned dots.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I shall have to look at Hansard. I am not aware of a decimal point dropped or moved three places. I am greatly disturbed by what my noble friend says, but I am not referring to the question he asked.

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PowerGen: Sale of Shares

3.15 p.m.

Lord Haskel asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why they will not set up a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the recent sale of their shares in PowerGen Plc.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley): My Lords, there is no case for a public inquiry. The Treasury is pursuing the further work suggested by the Stock Exchange concerning the circumstances surrounding the GENCO 2 sale. Sir Terence Burns will respond in substance to the Stock Exchange and the response will be published.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. There are some worrying aspects about the sale. Does the Minister agree that, because the Treasury is an interested party in this matter, a public inquiry would be more in keeping with open government and be seen to be more independent and more rigorous, and would ensure that all aspects of the matter were aired?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord is being over-simplistic. Matters relating to this issue have been explained by the Government on a number of occasions, and in particular by my right honourable friend the Financial Secretary, who informed the House of those matters last week. As I said in my original Answer, the Stock Exchange wrote to the Treasury and suggested that a Treasury inquiry would be appropriate. That is why the Treasury is taking forward urgently the work suggested by the Stock Exchange. We have asked a senior official within the Treasury, who was not associated with the original work, to carry out that inquiry. As I said in my first reply, we will publish the response when we send it to the Stock Exchange.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, is it not the case that the Question shows that the noble Lord who asked it was suffering from that most distressing and almost universal complaint of "inquiryitis"?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I cannot speak for the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, on how he wishes to ask his Question. But people often jump to the idea of having a public inquiry at far too early a stage. As I said, a proper inquiry will be conducted by the Treasury and the results of that inquiry will be published.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford: My Lords, I must declare an interest. I bought some of these shares. Is the Minister aware that, since the original issue price, the shares have agreeably gone up in value, and that the only people who have suffered are the speculators who expected to make a very quick profit on the first few days of trading? They did not. But now all who, like myself, bought them as a long-term investment are extremely satisfied with the agreeable increase in price.

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely correct. I should like to congratulate him on his financial acumen.

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Lord Eatwell: My Lords, does the Minister recall that, in his Statement to another place on 9th June, Sir George Young stated:


    "We took financial and legal advice on 3 March about the possibility that Professor Littlechild might make an announcement.... The advice that we received was that no change was required to the prospectus"?—[Official Report, Commons, 9/6/95; col. 422.]

Will the Minister confirm that the legal advice was received from the firm of Slaughter and May? Will he tell the House whether, as I am reliably informed, before receiving the opinion of Slaughter and May, the predominant legal opinion in the Treasury was that the prospectus should be changed?

Lord Henley: My Lords, as the noble Lord will be well aware, we do not comment upon our legal advice.

Lord Eatwell: My Lords, will the Minister answer the second part of my question? Before the receipt of independent legal advice, was the predominant legal opinion within the Treasury that this prospectus should be changed? Is that true or false? Yes or no?

Lord Henley: My Lords, my answer does not change. We acted on legal advice.

Earl Russell: My Lords, is the Minister telling the House that the Government are like the former servant who brandished an open testimonial which said, "During his period of service with me, Mr. So and So has discharged his duties entirely to his own satisfaction"?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Earl makes a very silly point. As I made clear, we are responding to the Stock Exchange, which suggested that an internal inquiry by the Treasury would be appropriate.

Lord Richard: My Lords, are the Government saying that there is something wrong with the sale of these shares, but that the Government are not to blame because of the advice that they received, or are they saying that there is nothing wrong with the sale of the shares?

Lord Henley: My Lords, we have made it clear that we believe that we have acted absolutely appropriately on all occasions, but we have been asked by the Stock Exchange to conduct an inquiry. As it has so asked us, we have said we will. We are doing it in the manner in which the Stock Exchange has asked us to do it.

NHS Prescriptions: Cost to Patients

3.20 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the total cost of National Health Service prescriptions; and, of this total, what is the proportion which are free and what is the value of patients' charges made for each of the last three years.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, in the three years up to 31st March 1994 the total cost to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom of prescriptions for family health services was £3,626 million, £4,089 million and £4,491 million respectively. The income from the charges was

15 Jun 1995 : Column 1893

£259 million, £290 million and £318 million and over 80 per cent. of prescription items were dispensed free of charge.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. He said that more than 80 per cent. of prescription items are free but today many prescription items cost more under the National Health Service than they cost to buy over the counter. Furthermore, prescription items are free for anyone over the official retiring age, which does not apply to dental charges. In view of those facts, is it not time that the whole question of who pays, and at what cost, should be looked at again? That would give us the benefit of prescribing new, improving and expensive drugs rather than seeing a great deal of public money spent on drugs which cost less than the money paid by the health service.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I do not believe that it would be appropriate to undertake such a review. It is important that some 80 per cent. of items are prescribed free of charge. Nevertheless, the money received from charges is substantial and the National Health Service can put it to good use. Particular items might cost less than the National Health Service prescription charge and it is open to the individual to acquire them by way of private prescriptions. However, I counsel those who consider taking that route to examine carefully whether at the end of the day it would be cheaper for them.

Lord Rea: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the anomaly whereby patients with certain medical conditions which require continuous replacement therapy—for example, diabetics and people with thyroid deficiency—but who are not exempt from prescription charges for any other condition can obtain free of charge not only the drugs that they require for their qualifying medical condition but tranquillisers and so forth, whereas other patients who are suffering from conditions which need continuous treatment—for example, those with high blood pressure—can obtain no drugs free of charge? Does not the Minister believe that it is time for a review of the whole system?


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