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Mr. Redwood: Life is not that simple. I must again ask the Minister to contain his impatience. His hon. Friend

8 Jul 1998 : Column 1103

the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) has been interrupting on less important matters, and I have been extending to him the courtesy of answering his point. The Minister makes a more important point that is worthy of a longer reply, which I shall give at the right point in my argument; but it is right that I first explain the general position: the threat of closures, the sort of services that the pharmacies offer, and why they are important in local communities.

If someone, even in one of those local communities, thinks that price is far more important than service and the branded medicine, that person can travel to the nearest large supermarket and take advantage of the excellent goods sold in, for example, the supermarket that used to be run by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells. There, and in other, rival and equally competitive, supermarkets--I do not wish to recommend any particular supermarket--can be found cheaper medicines, equivalent to the branded goods, sold on price.

We are not trying to stifle choice in the marketplace, or to prevent people from buying cheap medicines if price is important to them, but we think that, in this unique situation--we do not recommend similar measures for other industries--it is worth preserving the system of RPM that has served local communities so well in the past and could do so in future.

The House will want to know how we propose to achieve that. There are two mechanisms on offer, in amendment No. 2 and in new clause 4. The amendment tabled in my name on behalf of the official Opposition does the job in a straightforward way, providing that, if the competition authorities wished to change their minds on the issue, Ministers would have to come back to the House to amend the legislation.

It is an old technique and a democratic one. I know that such things are going out of fashion with the Government, but I recommend it to the House, as it would ensure that the matter would be under democratic control and properly debated. The amendment provides a lock on the door, unless and until a majority party in future wished to change the arrangements. It works simply, by adding

to the list of exemptions in clause 3, which sets out the main prohibition regime and exemptions to it.

If the House finds the amendment a little too dramatic, because it would clearly do the job, there is an alternative in the form of new clause 4, standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire. If the Government chose to accept that instead of the really strong version, it would enable the Government to continue to exempt those goods

The new clause would preserve the exemption all the time that the court exemption is in existence; and the court would still have to satisfy itself about the particular case. That, too, would receive the blessing of the official Opposition, if that is the best that the Government are prepared to accept in order to get themselves out of the hole of their own making.

Ministers argued in Committee--as doubtless the Minister will argue tonight--that there is no point in taking such action in British law, because Brussels is

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determined to end the system of RPM, and that we must allow Brussels to have its way. However, instead of leaving it to Brussels to do that, Ministers say that the issue must be examined by the courts here: if the courts find in favour of the current practice, it will go, albeit over some longer period; and if the courts find against it, the courts will impose their own timetable for its removal. It is not much fun for the retail pharmacies fighting the case before the court to know that, either way, they will lose, but there may be some debate about how quickly the system is phased out.

I find it quite extraordinary that the Government take such a view of Brussels as they have done on this subject. In the fine soundbites to which we are often treated, we are told that the Government intend to be influential in Brussels. We are told that, by having made so many concessions to Brussels--on the social chapter and the treaty of Amsterdam, to name but two occasions--they are now in an extremely good position to get all sorts of free gifts back from Brussels.

Therefore, we ask the Minister to put up on this matter, and take a trip to Brussels. So generous am I in this respect that I should be happy to see public expenditure rise by the price of a return air fare to Brussels, if only the Minister could promise me that he would use that trip to insist on a better answer for the British retail pharmacy sector from Brussels.

The Minister must by now have had enough dealings with Brussels to know that, in Brussels, matters are often more in the nature of a negotiation than of a legal construct. Although they have legal form under treaties and court procedures, in practice many matters are settled, not in the normal judicial way as we would understand it, but behind closed doors by bargains between politicians and/or senior officials.

The matter before us is clearly a case in which the Government could use their influence--if they have any--to try to get Brussels to agree that RPM for retail pharmacies in this country is in the public interest, as was found under the previous Government, and that Brussels should recognise that, and not be too crass in its application of competition law.

Dr. Ladyman: Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify his remarks? Is he telling the House that he would prefer, and that we and our community pharmacies should put our trust in a deal struck behind closed doors with civil servants in Brussels, rather than in a British court, the restrictive practices court, and the current arrangements?

Mr. Redwood: No--the hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically slow-witted. I have made it clear that I want British parliamentary democracy to settle the issue. As proof that the Government have influence in Brussels--I do not believe they do, but I am always willing to be proved wrong--I want them to go there and tell Brussels to get its tanks off the lawns of our retail pharmacies.

That is a simple proposition, and I am explaining, for the benefit of the Minister, how Brussels works. I am not saying that I approve of that system; I am saying that that is the system, that it is the one within which the Government must work, and that, on this occasion, they should do so in the interests of British democracy--so that we can settle the matter here--and the interests of our constituents, who would clearly like the RPM system to be maintained.

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I believe that the Government's influence in Brussels would be greatly strengthened if they accepted either amendment No. 2 or new clause 4--the position would be clearest if the official Opposition's amendment were accepted. They could go to Brussels and say, "That is the will of the whole House of Commons," because not only would they carry with them tonight all the Opposition Members, as far as I know, but they would have all the Government Members' votes, if the Minister asked the Whip to get people to stand on their heads again and vote more in line with their conscience.

The whole House of Commons could be united for once, in defence of a good public service and a good British interest. Surely that would have some sway with those in Brussels when trying to judge both the political mood in this country and how much rope they would have to change our minds for us. Making the amendment would give a strong signal, and I recommend it strongly to the Government.

We know that the United Kingdom authorities are investigating, and I dare say the Minister will say that that cannot be stopped, but there is more chance of that investigation coming to the right conclusion from the pharmacies' point of view if the House clearly expresses its views.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths: I am not going to argue that that investigation cannot be stopped. I suspect that it could be stopped if the vice-chairman of the Conservative party were persuaded to withdraw the complaint that he lodged on behalf of his company. Will the right hon. Gentleman support me in making such a request?

Mr. Redwood: I am suggesting that the complaint could be stopped by changing the law, which is what is on offer this evening. I have no doubt that I would not be able to persuade the Asda company, which has moved on from the days when my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells was in sole charge and has new executive management, to drop its complaint. The executive board members would meet and say, no, they want to pursue the complaint, because it is in their business interests so to do.

I do not object to that, because I believe in a free society in which people can pursue their legitimate interests. All I ask is that we know where people are coming from, just as the House asks hon. Members to reveal whether they are coming from a particular position in cases where people should be aware of their interest.

I am saying that, on this occasion, we can change the process if we wish by primary legislation. We could do so tonight and that would send a clear signal to the investigating authorities or it could even overturn the investigation itself. The Government have the power to do something if they wish. That is all I am trying to establish at this stage in my argument.

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