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Lord Borrie: My Lords, surely there can be no disagreement in this Chamber as to the importance of a geographic spread of pharmacies throughout the country, whether those pharmacies are small community pharmacies or pharmacies found within the larger unit of a supermarket. Many people, including the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, say that nowadays one expects pharmacists to give advice as well as to sell goods. That is one of the extremely valuable assets which we surely would not wish to lose. The question before us is not the importance of pharmacies for all these reasons but whether the ending of the dictating by drug companies of the minimum price at which over-the-counter goods shall be sold will result in serious damage or the elimination of community pharmacies. That question will be determined, if this House permits it to proceed, by the Restrictive Practices Court--which consists not only of a judge but of two businessmen--after hearing all the evidence and all the arguments. I do not know the answer. Many Members of this House have claimed today, and on previous occasions, to know the answer. They know that pharmacies will be destroyed if resale price maintenance comes to an end. They may be right, or they may not.
Surely it is better that this matter be examined, since the inquiry has already started, or at least the proceedings have been started, by the body which exists for that purpose, the Restrictive Practices Court. It will certainly not be easy to establish, as is necessary under the present law, that there has been such a "material change of circumstances" since the 1960s that ending resale price maintenance is justified. That is a considerable hurdle to get over, but it seems to me that if it is established in the court that pharmacies would be damaged, then that would surely be against the public interest and the court would conclude that resale price maintenance in this specific field ought to continue and, under the existing terms of the Bill, it will continue for a period of five years.
With all respect to their Lordships who have spoken and who seem to know precisely what will happen in certain circumstances, we should allow the inquiry to discuss this matter in considerable detail and see what the outcome is. I think we should oppose the amendment.
Lord Milverton: My Lords, I support the amendment, as I have done previously. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said, it is the person who counts. I cannot quite see supermarkets being able to give advice to a person. I have not changed my opinion. The pharmacies are important as places where people can receive advice. They do not always want to bother a doctor. So I support the amendment. Let us not just think of competition, but of persons.
Lord Hughes: My Lords, I put my name to the amendment at the request of my noble friend Lord Morris who just a short while ago was taken ill. In a way I am sorry that I put my name to the amendment, not because I have any doubts about it but because in previous discussions in Committee it was obvious that the fear of what would happen to small pharmacies was held by Members of all parties and no party. If I had not put my name to the amendment, the likelihood is that the fourth name would have been from the Cross Benches. That would have reflected better the feelings of the House.
This is the first time that I have supported amendment of a Bill put forward by a Labour government in 12 years of such government. Admittedly, for seven of those years I was a Minister and I did not have much choice. But even then, I can say that I always supported the Government on every occasion with the same degree of enthusiasm.
I put my name to the amendment because I do not regard it as a political amendment. If you are a Conservative, if you are a Liberal, if you are Labour, or if you are a Cross-Bencher, can you view with equanimity the closure of community pharmacies? I am certain that very few of us would say that it was a price worth paying for something else. At a previous stage my noble friend the Minister rightly pointed out that he is the Minister responsible for competition and that he did not feel that it was right for him to venture into the health side of the matter. But competition is not just
In a village, people know each other. They know the chemist, they know the doctor. The doctor is not just a professional adviser. He is also a friend and their neighbour. People know the stress under which he operates. They know that it helps the doctor to carry out his work in the best possible way if he is not confronted with every minor ailment in his consulting room. That is where the benefit of the community pharmacy arises. People in the village know that if they have a minor ailment, or if they think they have a minor ailment which may turn out to be something more serious, they go in the first place to the chemist. They will get advice; and if the chemist thinks it is the right thing to do, he will supply them with the medicaments that they want. But on other occasions the chemist will say, "No, I cannot rightly deal with this. You must go along and see the doctor". People know that when they have seen the doctor and have been given a prescription they can go back to the chemist and, either immediately or within an hour, the prescription will be made out. If that shop is driven out of business they may have to go, as I have said before, to the nearest Boots or equivalent, which may be many miles away. They certainly will not get their prescription very quickly unless they go there to collect it. The great majority of prescriptions are free to the patient. But it will cease to be a free prescription if you have to add to it the cost of a bus or taxi fare to get to another chemist to collect the prescription.
There is another aspect. On competition, can it really be said that competition is helped every time a community pharmacy closes down because it is no longer profitable? Is it helped if 300 pharmacies close down or 1,000 pharmacies close down? If that happens, and the business goes to Boots or its equivalent, in many parts of the country we will be creating not competition but a local monopoly. I cannot see that that is in the interests of competition.
I have spoken about the help that chemists give to the doctors. Every year we know that thousands of general practitioners retire long before the normal retirement age because they can no longer stand the stress. If the village doctor, whose job, incidentally, does not just cover the 2,000 people in the village but covers a much wider area round about, has to retire and the pharmacy has to close down, patients' interests will not be served.
We have been accustomed in the past 10 months to hearing Ministers say, "This is a listening government". Not everyone believes it. On this side of the House, we do believe it, because there is now ample evidence that that is the position. But last Sunday 284,000 people put down their names to come to London. Not all of them managed to get there. I understand that some people in Yorkshire were held up because it was snowing and the coaches could not run. Those 284,000 people were in London not because they are opposed to the Foster Bill on fox hunting. Probably the majority are, but that was not their only interest. They were there because they were objecting to many other things and saying that the interests of the countryside were not being properly looked after--whether it was taking greenfield sites for
I do not know whether this amendment is necessarily the best way of going about it. I have heard how the Government are anxious to protect community pharmacies. But, as far as I can see, what we are getting from the Government at this stage is only indications of what may happen. What we need is not possibilities; at the very least we expect probabilities; and the ideal would be if the Government were to give us certainties. I wholeheartedly support the amendment, to which I have put my name.
Lord Desai: My Lords, when my noble friend Lord Morris moved this amendment at the Committee stage of the Bill, I tried to express my reservations about it. While it is quite true that community pharmacists perform many functions and we would like them to be preserved, there must be better ways of doing that than loading the costs on to the resale price of the medicine. This is a question of unbundling. The community pharmacists perform duties which are valuable and which should be rewarded, but the worst way of doing it would be to have resale price maintenance, thereby putting the costs on everyone, including those who do not need such help. I agree with my noble friend Lord Montague. We ought to have some kind of special fund to help small pharmacists and so recognise that they perform this function. This would be like a lump sum given to the pharmacists which would help them keep in business. But it would not carry over to the prices paid by the consumer.
Many noble Lords have said that consumers are loyal to the local pharmacist. That is very good. So even when resale price maintenance is removed, consumers will still go to their local pharmacist. Price will not be the only attraction. So consumers will be able to enjoy lower prices and the pharmacists will be given a lump sum to keep them in business. If some pharmacists disappear, which is what people want to prevent, the consumer will have to go to some other place and pay extra to buy the medicine. But the medicine the consumer buys will be cheaper than at his or her local pharmacy.
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