in the fourth session of the fifty-first parliament of the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland commencing on the twenty-seventh day of april in the forty-first year of the reign of





House of Lords

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Monday, 4th March 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.

Prescriptions: Men over Sixty

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the annual cost to public funds of implementing the decision of the European Court of Human Rights concerning the entitlement of men aged 60 to drugs and other items.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, we estimate that the cost of giving free prescriptions to men between the ages of 60 and 65 is about £40 million a year.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but does it not amend considerably the Answer that she gave to an earlier Question when she suggested that the cost was only £2 million? Secondly, does my noble friend agree that for £40 million of expenditure to be incurred without parliamentary assent in either House is an alarming precedent?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, my noble friend asked an identical Question on 15th January this year. My reply was:

    "My Lords, we estimate that the cost of giving free prescriptions to men between the ages of 60 and 65 is about £40 million a year".--[Official Report, 15/1/96; col. 357.]

With regard to the second part of my noble friend's question, it is not a matter of the European Court deciding that we should tax our citizens in order to find

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this money. The European Court decided that the principle of equality between men and women in matters of social security applies in the age of exemption from prescription charges.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the confusion over whether the sum is £2 million a year or £40 million a year arises from the fact that the judgment about prescription charges was made by the European Court of Justice, which is the court which decides matters relating to the European Union, and not the European Court of Human Rights as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter? However, does the noble Baroness agree that the noble Lord is absolutely right to complain that that foreign court can impose charges on Parliament for which the Government then have to raise taxation? Would it not be in the interests of this country to amend Section 2 of the European Communities Act to give us back control over all taxation?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in saying that it was the European Court of Justice which made the ruling and not the European Court of Human Rights. In this case the European Court of Justice left the United Kingdom free to decide how to implement the principle it had established. We decided to equalise the age of exemption at 60 for both men and women. That was our decision. We took that decision to protect the rights of those women currently receiving free prescriptions.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, in view of the Minister's remark that we decided that the age should be 60 for everyone, whereas I gather that we could have made women wait until 65, and it was only a question of equality, does she agree that it is time we reviewed the blanket entitlement to free prescriptions at either age? There are many people over 60 who could well afford to pay for their prescriptions. The figure of more than 80 per cent. of people receiving free prescriptions seems very high.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, a review was carried out in 1993 into the very areas that my noble

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friend mentioned. At that time it was decided to stick with the present policy and, after the European Court of Justice decision, that the exemption should apply at 60.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many men and women in this country will greatly welcome the judgment of the European Court of Justice that men and women are equally entitled to social security benefits--in this case free prescriptions--at the same age without discrimination? Does she agree that they will welcome the Government's decision not to equalise upwards by requiring everyone to wait until 65 but allowing simple justice at the age of 60 for both sexes?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, many men will rejoice and welcome the European Court's ruling. Many women will be delighted that the exemption was equalised at 60.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government have accepted that men over 60 can claim back prescription charges for three months? How will it be possible to prove whether those prescriptions have been paid for and used in the previous period?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we use the prescription claims processing unit. Indeed, it has already authorised payments totalling £2.6 million to 83,000 men.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, will my noble friend deal with the question as to whether expenditure of this sort should be incurred without the assent of either House of Parliament?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I believe that I made it plain to my noble friend and to your Lordships that it was our decision to incur this additional cost.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, following on from the question by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, do the Government have any intention of further reviewing the distribution of free prescriptions? It seems to me to be eminently sensible that people who can afford to pay for their prescriptions should do so, but that those who cannot need not do so.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we do not have any intentions at this moment to undertake another formal review.

Malawi: Murder Trial Acquittals

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Elles: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve, and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Government the following Question:

Whether overseas aid from the United Kingdom was used to fund prosecution costs in the recent trial in Malawi of six defendants who were acquitted of the accusation of murder.

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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, neither overseas aid nor other public funds from the United Kingdom were used to fund prosecution or defence costs in the trial.

Baroness Elles: My Lords, with the leave of the House perhaps I may transmit my noble friend's apologies to the House for not being here; she broke her leg over the weekend. I should like now to put a supplementary question.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that strong verbal attacks which seem to be politically motivated have been addressed to the judge who acquitted the defendants in that case? The Government are lodging an appeal against the judgment. That will cost several thousands of pounds by way of expenditure from a country which is already extremely poor. Will the Minister take those factors into account when considering what legal reforms should be advised to Malawi and the kind of aid that is given to that country?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will join us in wishing my noble friend a very speedy recovery from her injuries.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, as regards my noble friend's supplementary question, the whole issue of a trial within Malawi is a matter for the Malawi judicial authorities. We believe that events should be allowed to run their course. Whatever happens there, it is an independent country and it must take the decisions.

However, my noble friend is absolutely right in saying that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. That is why we have been helping it to reform its systems--not only its legal sector but its economic reform, health and eduction sectors, its renewable natural resources, and good government. So far as concerns the legal sector, we have a task force on legal reforms under the chairmanship of a Malawi judge, whose report was finalised last month. It is being considered both by the Government of Malawi and our own Government. I hope that this will lead to new help for the Malawian legal sector as well as all the other matters that I have mentioned.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, we join in the general expressions of sympathy to the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, and send our very best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether she appreciates that yesterday was Martyrs Day in Malawi, when dissidents, such as Mkwapatira Mhango the journalist, who were murdered by agents of the former regime are commemorated? Does she agree that, despite the fact that the defendants in this trial were lucky enough to be acquitted, we should join with the people of Malawi in giving thanks for their deliverance from 30 years of one-party dictatorship?

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