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Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): Would my hon. Friend care to point out to the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who made that silly intervention, that it was a Conservative Government who established the 1987 regime in the first place?

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend's knowledge of the history behind the regulations is impressive. I am happy to tell him that I knew that as well.

There is an interesting point here, on which the Secretary of State may be able to shed some light in due course. The restrictions were introduced by the Conservative Government in 1987—or rather, I think, 1986—at the behest of the Treasury, which feared that the lack of any restrictions on entry to the pharmacy world was causing a haemorrhage of expenditure from the national health service budget.

I wonder whether one reason why the Government are taking their time to make up their mind about what they want to do is that on this issue, as on so many others, the Secretary of State is not her own master. Even had she received the promotion to the Department of Health for which she hoped, she would still not be her own master, because we all know that the dictator of domestic policy in this Government is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He may well fear the financial consequences of this change, and that may well be why there has been silence so far on what the Government's policy is.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): In both the rural and the urban parts of my constituency, there is widespread concern among small independent pharmacists about the prospect of being knocked out of business by the giant supermarkets. Does my hon. Friend agree that the vulnerable will suffer rather than the rich? Will not the poor suffer, and the poorer communities in particular?

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Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend has anticipated much of what I was going to say, as I would have expected him to. He is absolutely right. Perhaps the only comfort for those who are running community pharmacies in his constituency, and for the vulnerable constituents who will indeed suffer, is the fact that they are represented by a Member who takes such a close interest in their concerns—and who also supports a party that now places at the centre of its agenda the need to help the vulnerable and ensure that no one is left behind. Of course, in view of the appalling muddle that pervades the whole of Government, that same party will soon be taking the decisions affecting my hon. Friend's constituents.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): But will my hon. Friend reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) in his fine intervention? It is not just a question of remote rural communities; those who live in urban areas may actually be the most threatened. I am thinking of communities such as that served by the fine community pharmacy of Badham's, in Bengeworth. If anything undermined the viability of that pharmacy, a relatively underprivileged community would not have the access to pharmacy services that it deserves.

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend is right to point out that this issue affects urban areas as much as rural ones. Perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong, but when I had the pleasure of visiting his constituency a couple of years ago, I think that he drew my attention to the merits of the pharmacy that he mentions and its crucial role in the local community.

Mr. Luff indicated assent.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Yeo: In a moment; if I may, I should first like to make a little progress.

Perhaps it is time to touch on the substance of the OFT report itself, which acknowledges that the current system has a great many merits. Paragraph 1.15 confirms that four out of five people live less than two thirds of a mile away from a community pharmacy. The report in fact uses the phrase less than "500 metres", but my hon. Friends would be happier if I used other terminology. It also confirms that almost one person in two live within one third of a mile of a community pharmacy, so not surprisingly, nine out of 10 people consider it easy to get to a pharmacy from their home. Three out of four family doctors have a community pharmacy within easy walking distance, by which I mean less than a quarter of a mile away from where their practice premises are situated.

The message is clear: consumer satisfaction is high, a fact that my own constituency experience confirms. In two decades as a Member of Parliament—an anniversary that was completed last Monday—I have scarcely received a single complaint about the inaccessibility of community pharmacies. On the contrary: there is tremendous support for them in South Suffolk, as evidenced by the petition raised in support of the Moss pharmacy in Hadleigh, which was signed by

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hundreds of my constituents. Such support was also evidenced in a letter that I received from Clare parish council, which states that

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: In a moment.

A representative of the Clare Business Association wrote to the Department of Health earlier this year, saying:

Gregory Barker: Like many of my colleagues on the Conservative Benches, I have received petitions carrying hundreds of names of constituents who are concerned about pharmacies. In particular, the elderly in Bexhill are very worried about the possible consequent withdrawal of the prescription delivery service. They are particularly vulnerable because they often do not have access to the big out-of-town stores that could replace pharmacies.

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend makes his point very powerfully. [Interruption.] I note the belated arrival of the Secretary of State for Health—the man whose merits are such that even though he is handicapped by being a Scottish Member of Parliament, he is considered superior to all the other would-be candidates for the post of Secretary of State who were lined up in Cabinet last week.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Returning to the issue of costs, although this Government may have been silent about it, the same cannot be said of Jane Hutt, the Welsh Assembly Minister, who said that

The Government have been silent, but the Labour party in Wales has given the game away.

Mr. Yeo: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. As the debate continues, interest in what the Secretary of State will say in her reply is growing every minute.

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In my experience, any threat to community pharmacies provokes a positive outburst of support. In the past, concerns have been expressed occasionally—in my constituency and in others—when a family doctor practice seeks permission to become a dispensing practice. If the patients or customers of an existing community pharmacy believe that granting permission will damage their local community pharmacy, they readily say so in robust terms. In respect of today's debate on the Office of Fair Trading report, however, community pharmacies and dispensing practices are on the same side, sharing the same concerns about what might happen.

Roger Casale: Hon. Members on both sides of the House, including myself, who have received representations about community pharmacies are making representations to the Secretary of State. However, this is an Opposition day debate, which is usually used to attack Government policy. What we are debating now is not Government policy, but simply a recommendation of the Office of Fair Trading. When is the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) going to start debating Government policy on this matter?

Mr. Yeo: If the hon. Gentleman does not believe that it is Government policy, there is nothing to stop him voting with us later this evening. The fact remains that we do not know what Government policy on this matter is. We have scheduled the debate in a timely and opportune way to give the Secretary of State the chance to clear up the doubts and resolve the anxieties felt by many community pharmacies around the country.

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