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House of Lords

Thursday, 4th June 1998.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Medical Drugs: Public Scrutiny

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to take any steps to reduce the secrecy around the trials, licensing and marketing of medical drugs.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, the Government's White Paper Your Right to Know was published last December. That sets our proposals to allow closer public scrutiny and to remove unnecessary secrecy. We hope to publish a draft Bill later this year. The Bill will cover information about medicines. In addition, the Medicines Control Agency is examining its current policies in advance of legislation. Its review is taking into account the White Paper on the NHS. The Government will consider, in the light of that review, and our other proposals on assessing medicines, what further action we can take to make more information available.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that promising and comprehensive reply. Is she aware that the time is now right to abolish the secrecy surrounding the trials and licensing of drugs? That can be done, as in the US, without jeopardising commercial viability, by changing the existing regulations. The Medicines Act 1968 gives the Secretary of State powers to change the regulations and to end the secrecy without waiting for a special Bill. Will my noble friend bear that in mind and consider making those representations to the Secretary of State?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that suggestion. As I understand the White Paper on freedom of information, it says that the Government intend, where appropriate and consistent with EU law, to repeal or amend the statutory bars that exist in British law to freedom of information and bring them into line with the harm-and-public-interest tests which are already outlined in the White Paper. The section of the Medicines Act to which my noble friend referred is specifically identified as one of those provisions in the freedom of information White Paper.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I welcome the principle of greater transparency in relation to medicines and greater access by patients to relevant information. Under the freedom of information Bill, how will the

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Government ensure that information which is genuinely commercial-in-confidence is protected from compulsory disclosure?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the noble Earl rightly raises the question of commercial-in-confidence information. He will be aware that there are specific recommendations within the White Paper which may cover that, although we have to wait until the details of the legislation are produced to see exactly how that will be addressed. Interestingly, given the atmosphere, which has changed since the publication of the White Paper, some of the international pharmaceutical companies have now agreed to ensure that their clinical trials are in the public domain in association with the Cochrane Collaboration based at Oxford which is interested in spreading the details of the meta-analysis of those trials.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, will any of those reviews cover veterinary medicines? I am thinking particularly of sheep dips.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, as I said in reply to the original Question, as I understand it, the freedom of information White Paper allows for disclosure of information about medicines in general, and that would presumably include veterinary medicines.

Pregnant Women: Maternity Rights at Work

3.10 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with the protection available to pregnant women against dismissal as a result of pregnancy or for taking time off for ante-natal classes.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis): My Lords, the current legislation gives comprehensive protection to women dismissed for any reason relating to pregnancy or childbirth. However, we recognise that difficulties may arise because of the uncertainty over the status of the employment contract during extended maternity leave. The Fairness at Work White Paper, published on 21st May, proposes that legislation should provide for the contract of employment to continue during the whole period of maternity leave.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I note that while he said that the legislation provides comprehensive protection, he did not say that it provides effective protection. Is he aware that NACAB and many other bodies report a constant stream of dismissals for pregnancy and of people returning from maternity leave being told things such as that the only work available is on the night shift, which one

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might be tempted to regard as constructive dismissal? Has he any proposals for making the law more effective than it is at present?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Earl for his continuing interest in this important issue. If we have laws on the statute book, it is of course important that they are enforced and are capable of being enforced properly. That is something which we are examining with care and which we have forecast in the White Paper. Ultimately of course it is for the complainant to take the matter to the appropriate tribunal or court. If she does not do so there is nothing very much that one can do about that. Part of the job is to keep people properly informed of their rights. That is something that we have done and will continue to do.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, welcome though the proposals in the White Paper Fairness at Work are, is the Minister aware that there is still the important question of ensuring that the measures are enforced? Is the noble Lord aware that, for example, at present the Equal Opportunities Commission receives something like 15 complaints a month about women being dismissed once they have announced their pregnancy? It is not simply a question of ensuring that rights are known but also that responsibilities are known and recognised by employers. Will he take steps to ensure that the new measures are sufficiently publicised?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, my noble friend is right. But it remains for the complainant to take the appropriate action. It is not a matter that is punishable criminally. The Government have a duty to extend knowledge as far as concerns employers and employees about what is happening. A DTI booklet, Maternity Rights, provides plain English guidance on the rights available. In addition, other departments provide guidance on the legislation. The Department of Social Security produces information as regards babies and benefits. The Health and Safety Executive provides useful information in that regard. The Government are using their best endeavours to make sure that the rights of people are known and understood on both sides.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the more rights and protection given to pregnant women, and the more costs put on employers, the more difficult it will be for those people to gain jobs because employers will avoid employing them?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I could not disagree more fundamentally with the noble Lord. In order to achieve a workforce that is co-operative, helpful and involved in a company, a management also has duties to ensure that it behaves in a civilised way. Both the previous government and this Government have taken that point on board. We feel that there is a case for real improvement in this regard.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is the Minister aware that it appears that many employers are

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ignorant of the fact that they will receive reimbursement for the cost of paying a woman maternity pay while she is on maternity leave? Could that be made more widely known? Perhaps then employers would be less inclined to ignore the law.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I do not think that there is overwhelming evidence of an exodus from responsibility on the part of employers. There are serious situations which have to be addressed. I take note strongly of what my noble friend properly suggests.

Lord Milverton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is wrong and disgraceful for an employer not to fulfil his duty as regards a woman having a child? In fulfilling one of women's most lovely functions, is it not unfair that women should be penalised and unable to continue a career, as is right for any woman to be able to do?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, the noble Lord has addressed all the relevant points in that fairly brief intervention. The task of the Government, and part of the role of the White Paper Fairness at Work, is to use their best endeavours to seek to promote a family friendly culture at work. Sometimes it does not exist, and we have to rectify that position.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, mentioned the booklet Maternity Rights. It is extremely clear for the recipient, as is the package for employers. Problems in arrangements may be considerable for employers, but does the Minister agree that the information cannot be faulted? It is extremely clear.

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