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Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I should be grateful if the Minister could respond to my point on whether or not prescription charges will be included in the 90-day review. The matter is particularly relevant because, as I hope the Minister will be aware, the committee on this subject in another place said that it wished to look at this whole issue and I believe that the Government's response was that they would examine the potential for change in the prescription charging area.
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the answer to the noble Baroness is, no. A fundamental review of health expenditure took place in 1993. The conclusion of the review was that the present scheme operates effectively, is well targeted and does not cause hardship.
Baroness Nicol: My Lords, the noble Baroness has obviously done some research on prescription charges in order to deal with this Question. Can she say when the cost of the prescription began to outstrip the cost of the drugs? Is that a new phenomenon or did it happen some years ago?
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, every year the prescription charge increases, but so does the cost of some of the drugs. Indeed, some of the drugs, for which people have to pay only the £5.25 prescription charge, are extremely costly. For instance, some drugs for diabetes and for lowering cholesterol cost around £70 a month. The recipient has to pay only £5.25.
Baroness Cumberlege: Yes, my Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. Ten out of the world's top 35 medicines were discovered in the UK and more than one-third of all European biotechnology companies are based in this country.
Baroness Fisher of Rednal: My Lords, how many asthma sufferers are without nebulisers, which ease their lives considerably, just because they cannot afford to purchase them? Cannot those items be supplied by the National Health Service? Many children, particularly in the Birmingham area, are suffering very severely.
Lord Rea: My Lords, what is the position with regard to National Health Service general practitioners giving private prescriptions to patients registered with them when the cost of the drug concerned is below the prescription charge?
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, perhaps I may ask a follow up question to that asked by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. I understand that if someone feels unable to afford any form of National Health treatment, whether it be dental or ophthalmic treatment or a prescription, special forms can be completed for exemption from the cost. Does that apply to pharmaceutical products in the same way as it applies to medical and dental treatment?
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we are anxious to ensure that people who need medication and who are on low incomes are exempt. Indeed, they are. As the noble Baroness said, 81 per cent. of all items are free of charge. That compares with 60 per cent. in 1979.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, can the noble Baroness put something right? Unless people are on income support and in receipt of passported free prescriptions they cannot have their prescription charges waived. People have to be in receipt of income support, or be over the age of 60 in the case of women and 65 in the case of men, or be children or suffer from special illnesses. There are people who cannot afford to pay for prescriptions.
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I believe that I made it very plain to your Lordships' House that there is an enormous number of exemptions. I believe that those on income support, family credit, the disability allowance and low incomes, etcetera, are exempt. We do not find cases of people being unable to get medication because they cannot afford it.
The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, the Norwegian authorities gave their permission for the Brent Spar to remain moored in Erfjord for a period of one year from the date of the original agreement on 7th July 1995. If Shell UK Limited requires an extension, it will need to seek the agreement of the Norwegian authorities.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for his reply. Because this giant storage buoy ended its working life four years ago and is liable to start breaking up, is not an early decision needed on its disposal, time already having been lost by the misguided and misinformed campaign by Greenpeace, although the deep Atlantic will probably prove still to be the best and safest option?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, Brent Spar is at present in relatively shallow water; it is safe and not subjected to any of the stresses of weather. What is important is that the right decision on its disposal should be taken. Our view was that on a case-by-case basis the most appropriate was deep-sea disposal. If Shell UK Limited comes forward with a proposal or any proposal is put to it for another means of disposal, we shall want to be satisfied that it is at least as good as the originally proposed deep-sea arrangement.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, there is still some time to go before July of next year. As the noble Viscount will appreciate, Shell UK Limited has been very open about the proposals which it is prepared to consider. Indeed, it is inviting a further round of suggestions. It has received proposals for anything from a floating casino to a reef in the North Sea to provide cover for fish. It will be for the Norwegians and Shell UK Limited to come to an agreement if it is felt necessary to have an extension. Shell is properly asking anyone who has a better solution to come forward with it now. Clearly something will have to be done with Brent Spar in the fulness of time.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, while the question of the Brent Spar is a matter of immediate concern, does the noble and learned Lord agree that it is only one of a number of cases of this sort which are likely to arise in the future? What are Her Majesty's Government doing to address the whole problem?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, we must not exaggerate the scale of the problem. Something like three-quarters of the platforms to be found in the North Sea are likely to be entirely removed and probably disposed of on land. That is because most of them are to be found in the shallow part of the southern North Sea. We have no doubt whatsoever that the only way to approach this matter is on a case-by-case basis. We should not have a broad policy. As regards Brent Spar, the clear conclusion of a deep-sea disposal was the right one. I believe that that is the right way to approach the matter. In the past we have taken the views of other signatories to both the Oslo and Paris Conventions. I believe that we were right to approach this case in the way we did.
Lord Haskel: My Lords, does not the Minister agree that keeping the public in the dark over the negotiations between Shell UK Limited and the British Government has meant that the emotive arguments were much easier to harness, to the eventual disadvantage of both Shell UK Limited and Her Majesty's Government? Does not the Minister further agree that transparency would have avoided all that?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I cannot accept for a moment that there has been any lack of transparency. In fact, before the decision was taken all the governments who were signatories to the conventions were advised. No one offered any objection to the proposed disposal agreed to by the United Kingdom Government and Shell UK Limited. It was only after Greenpeace occupied Brent Spar that attitudes changed. The noble Lord may have seen in an editorial in The Times last week that it was described as "environmentalist" headbutting by Greenpeace. I believe that, when one has regard to the cavalier disregard which Greenpeace had for scientific measurement of what remains on Brent Spar, that assessment was a touch generous.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, since Brent Spar is neither a platform nor a rig and has no comparable duplicate in the North Sea, does my noble and learned friend agree that its eventual disposal should not be a precedent for platforms which are mostly steel towers without residues? As we are a maritime nation, and as we expect to be kept informed, can encouragement be given to the media to identify marine structures correctly, as would be done in distinguishing a liner from a battleship, a ferry or a fishing boat?
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