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Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend is right. Does he agree that the Under-Secretary would be more convincing if he published the letter or evidence that he sent to Brussels in defence of our pharmacists before he received the letter giving him a rather dusty answer, and if he published the evidence that he intends to give the court, also defending our pharmacies?

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I hope that the Under-Secretary takes up that challenge; it would be very enlightening if he did.

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However, the response from the Commission--the Under-Secretary may interrupt me if I am wrong--referred to on 8 May, is essentially about whether the Commission would intervene if the legislation were amended, as happened in another place, to stay proceedings before the restrictive trade practices court. That is not the question before us now, which is: will the Commission seek to intervene if the House legislates on the basis of resting on the decision of the restrictive trade practices court?

The view that the Under-Secretary expressed in Committee was pretty clear on that point. He said:


That is in the context of a conclusion reached by Richard Whish, an eminent competition lawyer, that the Commission is capable of taking into account general public health interests in its examination of a case under article 85 of the treaty on European Union. The proposition seems to be, therefore, that the Commission would be able to rest upon the public interest test applied by the restrictive trade practices court and, on that basis, not pursue an article 85 investigation if that court concluded that RPM was not acting against the public interest.

That brings us back to amendment No. 2 and new clause 4. They differ from what the Government propose in the following important respect. The Government are proposing that community pharmacies should be protected for five years. I do not understand it to be the intention of the House that community pharmacies should be given a stay of execution. My understanding of the debate, including the contributions made on Second Reading and in Committee by Labour Members, was that we had concluded that, subject to an examination of the evidence by the court, there was a belief in the House that the process of resale price maintenance on over-the-counter medicines acted in the public interest--that it was not necessarily anti-competitive in any case, but that, in addition, it was justified on general public interest grounds. We had concluded that, if we moved to an article 85-style or chapter 1 prohibition-style investigation, the narrower gateway--moving from a public interest examination to a simply competition examination without taking broader public interest criteria into account in this instance--might well lead to a narrower conclusion that was prejudicial to community pharmacies. We concluded that that was undesirable. The House therefore wished to move toward protection for community pharmacies and to vest that in the legislation.

The Government are offering only five years' protection, but the wish of the House is to go further. Devices are available to achieve that: amendment No. 2 and new clause 4 would be perfectly adequate for the purpose. The proposition before the House is that we should not limit the protection of community pharmacies by a stay of execution but should rest on the court's decision that RPM on over-the-counter medicines is not against the public interest. I hope that the Government will respond positively to the amendment and the new clause.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): I shall expand on the points that were made by my hon.

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Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford(Mr. Beard). The amendment's stated aim, which was outlined by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is to protect community pharmacies. It is interesting to note that there seems to be a slight split in the Tory party in that there are alternative proposals, but I shall pass over that. As I understand it, the amendment also aims to ensure that resale price maintenance continues for ever. As my hon. Friend said, it has several aims. One is to distract attention from the unfortunate fact that in a former life the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) initiated the attack on RPM.

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Until the Bill started its passage through Parliament, the Tories took no action to protect pharmacies. An early-day motion has been widely cited, but that is a two-edged sword because I understand that although only three Conservative Members signed it, the Conservative party now says that it is wonderful and does not go far enough.

The reason for the smokescreen was evident in the speech made by the right hon. Member for Wokingham: the amendment is an opportunity for yet further Euro-bashing. The constant talk about Brussels is revealing. It is as if Europe is over there in Brussels and not a community of which we are a part. To speak about Europe as if it were separate is ridiculous and demonstrates a certain mind set. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in dragging the issue of lobbying into the debate.

Mr. Redwood: Amendment No. 2 does not seek anything in perpetuity. Parliament can change its mind and change legislation at the drop of a hat if there is a will to do that, and that freedom is in my amendment. New clause 4, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has tabled, would allow the court to come to a different judgment at some future time. There is no split between us, and we are aware that we would need Labour votes to pass either. We offer Labour Members a choice and we would be happy with either. The hon. Lady spoke about the early-day motion. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I voted for its wording on Second Reading--and we should have liked Labour Members to join us on that.

Dr. Starkey: I accept the correction: of course Parliament can undo what it has done and, to that extent, nothing need continue for ever. I dissent from the right hon. Gentleman's analysis of the effect of the amendment and the new clause. They would expose RPM to abolition by the Commission within years, whereas the Government proposals give at least five years of protection.

Another point that has arisen in the debate was also made in Committee. The Opposition have made great play about being the protectors of community pharmacies, but they have slightly narrowed the definition of such pharmacies. Judging from how they speak about them, they have been recruited to their rather spurious notion of country life and occur only in the countryside. I appreciate that such pharmacies are incredibly important to rural communities, but they are also important to urban communities, and the dichotomy between supermarkets and independent pharmacies is not quite as strong as the Opposition make out.

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In my constituency, some small pharmacies are independent and others are branches of a large national chain. There is also an excellent pharmacy inside a Tesco supermarket. It is extremely active in co-operating with local GPs and has run health education campaigns on asthma, diabetes, antenatal care and emergency contraception services.

There is no argument between us about the need for an extensive network of pharmacies in all communities; I merely ask the Opposition to accept that community pharmacies are not simply small independent ones. Pharmacies serve all sorts of communities and include those in large supermarkets as well as the independents. I look forward to the Government's plans to ensure that all pharmacists, whether they are independent, in community pharmacies or in shops or supermarkets, are used more effectively. However, I do not think that such a debate should form part of the discussion on this part of the Bill.

The Opposition are engaging in a cynical exercise. Under the guise of the protection of community pharmacies, they are addressing an entirely academic point. They know that their amendment would provoke the end of RPM, although they say that they are trying to protect it.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I shall not reiterate what has been said because I agree with much on both sides of the argument. We all support community pharmacists, large or small, urban or rural, and we want them to be able to function with some security. The people who use them should have access to them not just for the next five years, but beyond. The proposals that we are debating will lead to a lack of security. If resale price maintenance fails the public interest test, that could be the end of many community pharmacists. The alternative is a five-year stay of execution.

We would have more sympathy for the Government's proposals if, during the five years, they offered an opportunity to look at ways in which to fund pharmacists and provide them with security. However, after five years, pharmacists will be left to the marketplace, and that would not provide the security that they seek or leave the communities that they serve with the feeling that such pharmacies will remain.

If the five-year transition period were used positively to prepare plans for the funding of pharmacists, that might enable us to support the proposal. Pharmacists in my constituency feel that convenient access to medicines for people who have been to their doctors is a vital part of primary health care. It is an anomaly of the health care system that that one part is not included in health care operations. That is because we regard pharmacists as small chemists and take the view that resale price maintenance is the best and only way to fund them. Many pharmacists feel that their qualifications and experience, and the valued support that they provide to GPs by way of health education and even diagnosis are worth more than just the protection of RPM on over-the-counter medicines. They should be considered as part of primary health care.

Resale price maintenance has served pharmacists and their communities well. We will support the amendment because it would ensure, at least in the short term,

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the continuance of RPM and, therefore, the protection of pharmacists. RPM will be under constant commercial attack, and those challenges may be the pathfinders for many more. Such insecurity may prompt some pharmacists to give up. Pharmacists who are thinking of retiring in the not-too-distant future may be feeling fearful about their ability to sell their businesses. Pharmacists who have received their qualifications and are looking for new opportunities may feel distinctly uncomfortable about taking on positions in small chemist shops that may be under threat in only a few years.

That insecurity is the reason for this debate. Although the Minister has provided good protection for a short period of years, if it is needed, he has not looked in the long term--at the long-term provision of pharmacists and access to them, which is at the heart of what we are looking for. On this occasion, we support the Opposition amendment.


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