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6.40 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): In anticipation of a speech from the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), I welcome her to her new position. We are surprised by the scale of the changes at the Department of Health; the hon. Lady will have a lot to do during a difficult and busy time for the Department. I look forward to debating with her.

This has been an interesting and important debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) began it effectively, speaking forcefully about the role of community pharmacists and the importance of pharmacies in the communities that Members on both sides of the House represent. He challenged Labour Members to support our motion, as well as the early-day motion that many of them signed, to send a further message to both the Government and pharmacists about the importance that we attribute to the work of pharmacists for our society.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made what can only be described as a balanced speech, in keeping with her current policy. She talked in glowing terms about community pharmacists, but then referred to the competitive context for the industry. I greatly hope that, when we hear the Government's final verdict, there will not be a sting in the tail for our community pharmacists. Given the interest displayed by hon. Members in this issue, will the Minister of State give us an assurance in her winding-up speech that, when the Government eventually publish their policy decision, they will make a full statement to the House?

We heard an authoritative speech from the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who brings considerable professional expertise to the subject. However, her speech was spoiled by the fact that she complained about over-the-top comments from the Conservatives while making over-the-top comments herself. I was surprised to hear her say that community pharmacists who did not take on extra responsibilities should risk the loss of their contracts. That would be a great shame. The work of our community pharmacists goes well beyond the call of duty and well beyond the terms of their current contracts, so I would not want them to lose those contracts.

The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) made a valuable and insightful contribution. I pay tribute to him and to his Select Committee for the report that they published this morning, which is a valuable contribution to the debate that will help to inform the Government's decisions when they are eventually taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) made a valuable contribution. He spoke in particular of the threat to small family-run businesses. On the basis of his constituency experience, he described the extent of the personal service and commitment offered by community pharmacists to their customers, which went far beyond the call of duty and the normal requirements of their job.

Lastly, we heard the speech of the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). He may talk about brass neck, but I remind him that a Labour Government are considering changes to a system introduced by a Conservative Government that has provided proper protection to our community pharmacists.

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The future of the community pharmacy is crucial for communities right across the country. Local town and village centres alike are under threat from the Government in a way that we have never seen before. Local post offices are disappearing as part of a programme to close a total of 3,000 outlets, after five years of the Government's gross mishandling of the Post Office.

The current proposals pose risks to another cornerstone of our local communities. All over the country, millions of people, especially the elderly, depend on the chemist's shop for the drugs that they need, as well as for a word of friendly advice and assistance. Without those shops, many elderly people would struggle to reach the larger, more distant outlets that would inevitably take over.

The hon. Member for Wakefield asked about the free market. The free market has a clear and important place in our society, but some parts of our local economy serve a social need and we jeopardise them at our peril. The Opposition would be deeply concerned if the Government made proposals that would lead to a reduction in the excellent services or accessibility currently provided by our community pharmacies.

Gregory Barker: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Labour Government, with all the zeal of a new convert to the free market, listen disproportionately to the voice of big business—the multinationals and the big players—and that the voice of the legion of small community businesses will go unheard?

Chris Grayling: It is very much my hope that, when we hear the Government's eventual verdict, that proves not to be the case. I hope that there is no sting in the tail. We want this issue to be resolved. The OFT report has been rejected already by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and in Northern Ireland. A substantial majority of Members have very clearly set out their views on the issue. Most of us have submitted petitions signed by thousands of people, representing the views of our local communities and saying that we do not want these changes to happen. It is time that the issue was laid to rest once and for all—time to give back stability to our pharmacy industry.

We have heard from hon. Members this evening that the OFT concluded from its work that removing restrictions on entry into the community pharmacy market would give greater choice to consumers. Of course, there is a strong argument that some people, such as hon. Members—professional, mobile people who are able to collect prescriptions on Saturday mornings when we do our shopping—would benefit greatly from more supermarket pharmacies, but such policy changes should not be directed primarily towards people like us. Will the elderly and young families without easy access to transport—perhaps the family car has been taken to a place of work during the day—still be able to gain easy access to pharmacies? Such things will be much less certain if these changes come to pass.

The ability of small, local pharmacies to withstand the pressures that deregulation and competition would bring lies at the heart of the debate. The message that I

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am getting from my own constituency—other hon. Members are getting the same message from theirs—is that local community pharmacists believe that their business will disappear if the supermarkets open new outlets and, as a result, local services will disappear although people need them.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Grayling: I will not give way now because I only have a couple of minutes left.

We are not talking about a free market in which lower prices will lead to growing sales and competition will improve and increase service standards for all. We are dealing with a tightly regulated and restricted market, where smart business practices cannot increase the size of the available cake. Local pharmacists derive the vast majority of their income—80 per cent. in many cases—from their work dispensing on behalf of the NHS, so they are much more like sub-contractors than retailers. They provide a service to our health service; they are not a part of the retail market, which is the point that the OFT investigators missed.

The danger is that, if a major supermarket opens a local pharmacy, the prescription business that it takes from other pharmacies will come straight off their sales. The risk is that we end up moving around the pieces of the cake and that the loser is the local village or town centre and the local pharmacy, but the ultimate losers are the elderly and those without transport, who will find those services less available to them. It is extraordinary that the OFT report does not seem fully to recognise that risk.

The report suggests that abolishing the control of entry rules would not lead to a substantial reduction in the number of pharmacies, but that is not the case, as I know from my own constituency, where several local pharmacies would disappear if one supermarket in particular opened a pharmacy. That view was reinforced by the evidence contained in the Select Committee report this morning. The Select Committee's verdict was quite clear: community pharmacies will disappear if the control of entry regulations disappear as well.

Of course, the risk is not just to pharmacies. In many rural areas, there are no local pharmacies; instead patients receive their drugs through dispensaries in their local GP practices. Britain's dispensing doctors are as vulnerable to such changes as community pharmacies, and the loss of their dispensaries in rural areas with little public transport could be disastrous for the elderly.

Of course, pharmacists are a vital part of our health service. They are a core part of the Government's health strategy and part of the NHS plan. They are highly professional, experienced people, with considerable medical knowledge and expertise to use on behalf of the NHS. Local pharmacies could take pressure off GPs and other parts of the NHS by providing the first port of call for minor ailments more often than is the case today, but we will not be able to reap that possible benefit if we lose neighbourhood pharmacies.

Our community pharmacists are an unsung part of our health service. They are health care professionals, not retailers. They have skills that have historically been underused. They are also a vital support to millions of

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elderly patients. They are a cornerstone of local shopping parades and local shopping centres, particularly at a time when the great Post Office disaster is robbing so many of those centres of their local post office branch.

If the Government get the decisions on this issue wrong, they will do untold damage to communities around the country and to people who depend on the services that those community pharmacies provide. The message from the House should be clear: we value our community pharmacies and we do not want to lose them.

I commend the motion to the House.

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