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5.30 pm

I shall now deal with the issue that has been the passion of the Under-Secretary--the attitude of the Community Pharmacy Action Group. As he has asked about it, perhaps the House will give me leave to go into some detail about the different positions that it has adopted during the passage of the legislation.

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When the Community Pharmacy Action Group first alighted on the issue, it considered it carefully and drafted a comprehensive paper on the changes it thought were needed to the Bill in order to protect the interests of its members. It wrote to Mr. Mark Hickson of the Competition Bill team at the Department of Trade and Industry--I believe that that letter has been circulated to all interested Members.

The action group stated that it was campaigning for the continuance of resale price maintenance on over-the-counter medicines. It said that its response

I agree with that advice.

I think that the action group was sensible, and I told it so when I was in touch. The group did not tell me or my staff at the time that it was working in conjunction with LLM, the lobby firm. I dealt directly with the action group, and the telephone number that I had was the telephone number of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. The letterhead made it clear that the Community Pharmacy Action Group was extremely well supported, and that it consisted of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the National Pharmaceutical Association, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, the Scottish Pharmaceutical General Council, the Company Chemists Association, the Proprietary Articles Trade Association, the British Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers, the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, and the Co-operative Pharmacy Technical Panel. The action group led me to believe that it spoke for all those bodies, which in turn spoke for all their members. I believed that it was an extremely wide-ranging and broadly based alliance. I and my office continued to be in touch with the action group through the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

Today, I received a letter dated 6 July which changed the line that the action group was recommending in some respects, although not as much as the Under-Secretary is suggesting. For example, it says that it is continuing to oppose the action of the European Community on all this. The letter says:

that is, from the Commission.

    "The EU appears to be seeking, whether of its own motion or at the request of the OFT is unknown, to interfere in the UK's internal market. The effect of the threat from the Commission is that we have been presented with a choice: fight in the UK courts or in Europe."

The letter goes on to say that it firmly believes that resale price maintenance serves the British public well, particularly those who depend on the local chemist. The action group does not believe that Europe has a role in deciding its future, and would prefer UK to European jurisdiction. At the end of the letter, it says, rather surprisingly, that the action group no longer supports or seeks further amendments to the Bill.

I decided to telephone the action group today to seek clarification on that amazing change of heart from the strong and sensible position that was adopted as long ago

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as September, and which had continued throughout the Committee stage of the Bill. I was surprised to find that the telephone number under the letterhead of the Community Pharmacy Action Group was that of LLM.

When I asked to speak to the chairman of the action group, I was told that he was not there, but that I could talk to the account executive who was handling the case. I was happy to do so. However, the account executive became rather shy, and said that, since it was me, perhaps it would be better if I continued talking to the chairman with whom I had dealt in the past. As soon as I put down the telephone from the account executive at LLM, I received a telephone call from the chairman, Mr. David Sharpe, trying to explain the change of heart.

I have serious questions for the Under-Secretary in the light of these extraordinary exchanges. I should like to know whether the meetings with the President of the Board of Trade and the Under-Secretary were arranged by LLM. Was LLM present at the meetings.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): The Under-Secretary is not listening.

Mr. Redwood: I do not mind whether or not he is listening. He has some questions to answer and, one way or another, he will have to answer them, for the House and for the benefit of the nation.

Was LLM present at the meetings? Did the Under-Secretary have private meetings or telephone calls with LLM, and did he tell LLM that it would be helpful to get that group of small pharmacies to back off from pursuing what is obviously an embarrassing amendment for the Government? I do not know whether that happened, but we have a right to know whether there were any such conversations or private meetings or telephone calls between the Under-Secretary and LLM on this issue without the client, the Community Pharmacy Action Group, being present.

We should like to know whether there was any sort of deal. We see in the newspapers that lobbyists believe that one can do deals with the Government. Was there a deal? If so, can we please know its terms, so that we can judge whether it was a good deal?

Dr. Ladyman: I wonder what point the right hon. Gentleman is making. Is there not a fraction of possibility that the action group, which has been represented all along by people supporting its interests and helping it to present its case, has considered the facts and concluded that the Government are right and have been right all along? Could it be that the group believes that the Government have been advising it correctly throughout, and has now decided to support the Government's position?

Mr. Redwood: That is a theoretical possibility, but there are many other more interesting ones that are considerably more likely, and I shall explain why.

There is an inaccuracy in the comments of the hon. Member for South Thanet. Mrs. Sharpe, the wife of the chairman of the group, confirmed on the telephone to me this afternoon that she and Mr. Sharp had never informed me or my staff that LLM was involved in the case. I was not aware that that was the position. I prefer to see people directly. I do not like the intermediary of a lobbyist.

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I take the view that we are all paid to represent good causes in the House, and that we are the natural channels for a good case. A good case should go directly to the Minister and persuade him, or it should come through me and my hon. Friends or through the constituency Member, so that we can make our judgments about whether it is a good case, which we wish to back without remuneration, or whether it is not a good case, which should be politely referred to someone else, or that those involved should be told that we are not in agreement. That is the purpose of the House. We must make sure that people can get redress for legitimate grievances. I do not like to feel that I have been in any way misled about who is acting for different people, and what sort of game is being played.

I want to get back to the Government's involvement. We need to know how much the Government knew and how they were able to persuade either the advisers or the Community Pharmacy Action Group, or both, that this was not the appropriate way to proceed.

The letter from the action group, and my subsequent discussions with it, have made it clear that something changed, and that it came to believe that Brussels would pursue this case even if the United Kingdom protected the position in legislation. That is not a new fact. I have known that that was a possibility for months, ever since I began handling this Bill. I believe that the Under-Secretary made that clear in his defence of the Government's position in Committee.

The Under-Secretary has not suddenly come to the view that Brussels might take this up independently. It has been a well-known threat for a long time. All my planning to help the community pharmacies, which I wish to do, has been predicated on the fact that Brussels could interfere. I have constantly urged the Government to take Brussels seriously, and to go there to try to sort it out.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths: The letter to which the right hon. Gentleman refers specifically says that the author, David Sharp, has seen the letter from the Commission. That is the letter of 8 May, which I believe changed things. Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the letter because it has been available?

Mr. Redwood: That letter certainly did not change my view, because, since last year, when I first examined the Bill, I have of course been aware that Brussels might well pursue the case separately, or that there could be separate complaints to Brussels.

I thought that the aim of the Bill was to sort out double jeopardy. We have been telling Ministers that it will be very difficult to do so, and, as the Under-Secretary will remember, I have been urging the Government to go to Brussels expressly to sort out that point. It is clear from his attitude tonight that he has not done so. He is not about to say, "The right hon. Gentleman is wasting his breath, because I have solved the problem. I have been to Brussels, and there is agreement that Britain should be able to settle this issue in the interests of retail pharmacists by maintaining resale price maintenance."

The Government have given us fine words, saying that they support small pharmacists, as do the rest of us, that RPM would help, and that some pharmacists will close if it is not maintained. However, they say to the pharmacists, "Pity us, because wicked Brussels will sort out the

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problem in a way that we do not want, so you should back off and not embarrass us in the House by backing amendments that would solve your problem."

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