THE PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES
in the fourth session of the fifty-first parliament of the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland commencing on the twenty-seventh day of april in the forty-first year of the reign of
HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II
FOURTH VOLUME OF SESSION 1995--96
House of Lords
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, we estimate that the cost of giving free prescriptions to men between the ages of 60 and 65 is about £40 million a year.
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but does it not amend considerably the Answer that she gave to an earlier Question when she suggested that the cost was only £2 million? Secondly, does my noble friend agree that for £40 million of expenditure to be incurred without parliamentary assent in either House is an alarming precedent?
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the confusion over whether the sum is £2 million a year or £40 million a year arises from the fact that the judgment about prescription charges was made by the European Court of Justice, which is the court which decides matters relating to the European Union, and not the European Court of Human Rights as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter? However, does the noble Baroness agree that the noble Lord is absolutely right to complain that that foreign court can impose charges on Parliament for which the Government then have to raise taxation? Would it not be in the interests of this country to amend Section 2 of the European Communities Act to give us back control over all taxation?
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in saying that it was the European Court of Justice which made the ruling and not the European Court of Human Rights. In this case the European Court of Justice left the United Kingdom free to decide how to implement the principle it had established. We decided to equalise the age of exemption at 60 for both men and women. That was our decision. We took that decision to protect the rights of those women currently receiving free prescriptions.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, in view of the Minister's remark that we decided that the age should be 60 for everyone, whereas I gather that we could have made women wait until 65, and it was only a question of equality, does she agree that it is time we reviewed the blanket entitlement to free prescriptions at either age? There are many people over 60 who could well afford to pay for their prescriptions. The figure of more than 80 per cent. of people receiving free prescriptions seems very high.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many men and women in this country will greatly welcome the judgment of the European Court of Justice that men and women are equally entitled to social security benefits--in this case free prescriptions--at the same age without discrimination? Does she agree that they will welcome the Government's decision not to equalise upwards by requiring everyone to wait until 65 but allowing simple justice at the age of 60 for both sexes?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government have accepted that men over 60 can claim back prescription charges for three months? How will it be possible to prove whether those prescriptions have been paid for and used in the previous period?
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, following on from the question by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, do the Government have any intention of further reviewing the distribution of free prescriptions? It seems to me to be eminently sensible that people who can afford to pay for their prescriptions should do so, but that those who cannot need not do so.
Baroness Elles: My Lords, with the leave of the House perhaps I may transmit my noble friend's apologies to the House for not being here; she broke her leg over the weekend. I should like now to put a supplementary question.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that strong verbal attacks which seem to be politically motivated have been addressed to the judge who acquitted the defendants in that case? The Government are lodging an appeal against the judgment. That will cost several thousands of pounds by way of expenditure from a country which is already extremely poor. Will the Minister take those factors into account when considering what legal reforms should be advised to Malawi and the kind of aid that is given to that country?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, as regards my noble friend's supplementary question, the whole issue of a trial within Malawi is a matter for the Malawi judicial authorities. We believe that events should be allowed to run their course. Whatever happens there, it is an independent country and it must take the decisions.
However, my noble friend is absolutely right in saying that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. That is why we have been helping it to reform its systems--not only its legal sector but its economic reform, health and eduction sectors, its renewable natural resources, and good government. So far as concerns the legal sector, we have a task force on legal reforms under the chairmanship of a Malawi judge, whose report was finalised last month. It is being considered both by the Government of Malawi and our own Government. I hope that this will lead to new help for the Malawian legal sector as well as all the other matters that I have mentioned.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether she appreciates that yesterday was Martyrs Day in Malawi, when dissidents, such as Mkwapatira Mhango the journalist, who were murdered by agents of the former regime are commemorated? Does she agree that, despite the fact that the defendants in this trial were lucky enough to be acquitted, we should join with the people of Malawi in giving thanks for their deliverance from 30 years of one-party dictatorship?
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