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Lord Graham of Edmonton: The figure I gave was 36 per cent.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: I am grateful to the noble Lord for that precision. The effect of such a shift in buying patterns means that the economic viability of up to about 3,000 pharmacies throughout the length and breadth of the country will be affected. If those 3,000 pharmacies disappear it follows as night follows day that the policy of this Government on the vital matter of health will suffer serious detriment. If that is the policy--it should be the policy--we should look very carefully at anything that affects the viability of these pharmacies. It is not simply a case of special pleading for one sector; there is a sound public policy reason for maintaining their independent position.

It is of interest to note that prior to the last general election Labour Members of Parliament in another place were extremely supportive of RPM on over-the-counter medicines. Indeed, the consumer affairs spokesman, Mr. Nigel Griffiths, now the Minister, who is a colleague of the noble Lords, Lord Simon and Lord Haskel, in the Department of Trade and Industry, organised a petition in support of RPM on over-the-counter medicines. He urged his fellow election candidates and Members of Parliament to support it. While I know that Mr. Griffiths has signed just about every petition that there has ever been, this one was a soundly-based petition. It is regrettable that there should be even a hint of inconsistency over a matter of such important public policy.

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Sometimes the counter-argument is advanced that these pharmacies should not be dealt with by the device of maintaining RPM in respect of over-the-counter medicines; instead, there should be support through public funding under the essential small pharmacies scheme. There is some support provided in that way, but that is in respect of pharmacies which, even with the existence of RPM on over-the-counter drugs, are in such a perilous position that they need to be supported. They are pharmacies located perhaps in the more remote parts of Wales and Scotland. They simply could not exist if they did not receive some kind of payment. But the fact of the matter is that it is not a particularly effective subsidy and it barely covers the annual costs of a single pharmacist, let alone other overhead costs.

There is a very strong case to be advanced in support of these pharmacies. We wish to ensure that as this Bill proceeds nothing is done to damage their interests. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide me with some comfort that in the Government's view, if regard is had to Clauses 6 to 11 which provide block exemptions, the criteria in Clause 9 to allow for individual or block exemptions are sufficient to enable this group of pharmacies to be brought within the exemption.

I believe that I understand the argument advanced, but I am not wholly persuaded that it is as explicitly set out as it might be. If the noble Lord could provide us with some comfort on that matter we would be very pleased to hear it. That would enable us to consider constructively how at later stages of this Bill we can take forward the campaign on behalf of pharmacists to ensure that their position is protected. I should be grateful to receive any indication that the noble Lord is able to give at this stage that that is the Government's approach in seeking to protect these pharmacies.

There are other provisions in the Bill which affect these pharmacies and need to be addressed. The position is slightly complicated. My understanding is that at the moment the Office of Fair Trading is looking at the exemption which was provided as long ago as 1970. It has been considering the matter for about a year. A preliminary indication is that the matter may be taken back to the courts with a view to securing the removal of that exemption. My understanding is that there must be a first step taken to secure an indication that prima face there has been a material change in circumstances which means that the exemption should no longer remain in place. I do not believe that any such first step has yet been taken, notwithstanding the fact that this matter has been considered for at least a year without any clear outcome.

I invite the noble Lord to look carefully at one matter as a matter of procedure, not just drafting. I believe that it is unsatisfactory. The transitional arrangements which would affect the continuation of this RPM arrangement are to be found in Part III of Schedule 13. It could not be found in a more remote part of the Bill. Paragraph 8 provides:

    "(1) The Chapter I prohibition does not apply to an agreement, decision or practice--

    "(a) at any time when it is the subject of continuing proceedings".

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Can the noble Lord hazard a guess as to when the Bill will receive Royal Assent and when it will commence to operate? It is far from obvious when or if the requisite proceedings will begin.

It is extremely important, if we cannot resolve this in the way I hope it can be resolved by securing an exemption under the provisions to which I have referred, that we in any event have clearly set out what exactly will be the transitional arrangements for these pharmacies. We would at least wish to see the five year period maintained for it. More importantly, we would like to see in principle a continuing exemption provided for pharmacies.

I have spelt out in a constructive fashion the line that we would like to take forward, and we will listen carefully to what the Minister has to say. It is an issue that is causing real concern in the country and I am grateful for the contributions from all sides of the House.

I seldom part company with my noble friend Lady O'Cathain but I regret I very much do so on this occasion. We do believe that medicines are different. I will give one example of one respect in which medicines are different from other products. In the past two weeks the Department of Health has required that paracetamol be sold in small quantities. The reason behind that requirement is, in our view, a sound one. Regrettably, far too many people--young people in particular--take overdoses of paracetamol. Even if they have repented or relented of it subsequently, such has been the damage to them that their position is irrecoverable. That is a perfectly sound reason for the Government to make that requirement.

That is an example that we could find across a broad range and indicates that the sale of medicines--even if they are over-the-counter drugs such as paracetamol--is not in quite the same category as many other products which are now sold in supermarkets.

I hope that the Minister will give as clear an indication as possible of the way forward on this vexed issue.

5 p.m.

Lord Hughes: I have an interest to declare. I live in the village of Comrie in Perthshire in Scotland. In the village there is a pharmacy; the pharmacist is my daughter. I am the non-executive chairman of the company which owns the business. Having declared that, I will take no further part in the proceedings on this Bill, on any amendments--either voting for it or against it; I will abstain--but I think I have some information which will be useful.

I am the non-executive chairman but, because it is a family concern, I know a great deal of what goes on. I know the extent to which the chemist in a village plays a very important part in the life of the community. The village of Comrie is a very pleasant place in which to live. There are many people who retire to it and it has a very much larger proportion of elderly people than other villages. I am quite sure there are a number of villages up and down the country, both north and south of the border, which are in the same position.

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I know the extent to which my daughter plays a part in the life of the village. She is not just the pharmacist; she is called on for many things. She is involved in organisations, where people rely on the sort of advice that she can give them. As has been stated, the Government's policy now is to switch work from the doctor to the chemist--although there is no indication that the chemists are going to get any more money for doing it--and it would be a pity if they lost the important over-the-counter part of the business. Having said that, I hope that I will not be accused of seeking to influence the debate, but it is of interest that I am able to speak about this part of the life of a village.

Incidentally, when the register of interests was raised in this House, I informed the clerk who was dealing with it, Mr. Vallance White, and he informed me that I did not need to declare that as an interest. So if anybody looks, my name is not on the register.

Earl Howe: I rise, briefly, in support of what my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser and others have said regarding the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, on this important matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, set out with great clarity and persuasiveness the threat that this Bill poses to community pharmacies. There is a critical difference between, for example, the village shop and the village pharmacy because of the heavy reliance that is placed on local pharmacies by those who are in real need--by virtue of illness, infirmity or whatever--and who are dependent on quick and easy access to medicaments and advice. That has been emphasised by a number of noble Lords. The situation is exactly the same regarding their dependency on community healthcare services of other kinds.

At the very least I hope the Government understand that there is an issue here and that the Minister will acknowledge its importance to very many people. The public interest takes many forms, but I put it to the Minister that there are one or two areas of our national life where the public interest is not necessarily served by unfettered competition--and access to the community pharmacy is surely one of those.

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