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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I can deal briefly with this amendment. First, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Simon, that the next group of amendments also deal with issues of community pharmacy--Amendments Nos. 215 and 216. I indicate to him now that I shall not move those amendments when we reach the next group.
Briefly, I should like to offer a number of observations. I certainly do not believe that this is an appropriate time--almost the last group of amendments on Report--to be dealing with something which the noble Lord, Lord Morris, is right in describing as an issue attracting a great deal of concern in the wider world. As he also pointed out, that concern is also felt in another place where over 100 Members of Parliament signed an Early-Day Motion indicating their concern for the continued existence of community pharmacies.
Perhaps I can also place on record that I have known the noble Lord in another place as well as here, and I do not suppose that we will always agree on political issues. However, the idea that the noble Lord would table amendments and spend the time that he has for any purpose other than pursuing the belief and desirability of maintaining community pharmacies is an outrage. If that is indeed what Mr. Bridgeman told the Evening Standard, I hope that he will retract it. It would seem to me that, for an admired public servant, for once he has lost a sense of objectivity and ought to reflect carefully on the matter.
Finally--this is not a complaint addressed to the Minister--I have said repeatedly that it is not a matter of competition policy that concerns us; it is a matter of the Government's declared health policy. It is a good health policy. If the noble Lord is again going to reject the amendments moved by his noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester, I hope that we shall see on the Government Front Bench health Ministers so that we can look them straight in the eye and discover whether or not they truly believe that what they are asking their noble friends to vote for coincides with the policy which the Department of Health truly believes to be the correct one.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Morris. I am sure the Minister senses that this is one of those issues on which one has to take a direct and focused point of view. As I said earlier, I am concerned as a consumer and as someone interested in retailing about the inevitable way in which small shops have been gobbled up by the big ones. I declared an interest then, as I do now, in the Co-operative movement. We are the proud possessors of big shops as well as little ones. But when one looks at what has happened on the high street of the village or the small town, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that if one lifts the protection for the small community pharmacy there will be closures.
The figure of 3,000 has been quoted, which seems too precise to be true. Whether that figure will stand up remains to be seen. In the town of Loughton in Essex there is one very large supermarket, Safeway, a company for which I have the highest respect. In the high street there are two or three chemists, one of which is a Co-op chemist. If the supermarket is allowed to reduce the charges, the Government may say, "This is what competition is all about--to reduce the cost to the consumer." I think that Parliament is about more than simply reducing the cost. It ought to be about protecting the consumer. Medicines are not like pounds of cheese, the cogs of wheels or newspapers. The Government should take on board that medicines are in a special category. Very often the small pharmacy is looked upon by its users as a place in which they can have confidence. The pharmacist gives advice freely and serves the community well.
I noticed in the newspaper today that Asda has placed a large advertisement asking that the amendments be rejected. Asda believes in what it calls "fair prices." I read that to mean "fair profits." Big companies like Asda are motivated almost completely by the desire to become bigger and bigger and more profitable. Inevitably, that is at the cost of the small businessman or consumer.
I do not demur from anything said by my noble friend or by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser. The Minister has time to reflect on finding some means to satisfy the House. The Minister has gone a long way. I believe that he can go just a little further. It would be a tragedy if the Government got the reputation of believing in removing the barriers to competition but also carried out the long process of eliminating or reducing choice for the consumer. The case that has been made should very much impress the Minister. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
Lord McNally: My Lords, since the noble Lord, Lord Morris, called Lloyd George in aid in his remarks perhaps I may remind him of the cartoon showing a young Liberal outside a conference calling on people to make love and not war. The old Liberal passing said that Lloyd George did both. But I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Morris, need worry about his own reputation as regards some of the remarks that he reported to the House. I believe that he stands far too high for anyone to cast doubts on why he tabled these amendments.
I intervene only briefly because when he raised the matter earlier my colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, from these Benches, gave support. We have here a genuine case of the danger of an important policy falling between departments. It is clear that the Department of Trade and Industry, with its push for competition, may not be full square with the Department of Health. It was very interesting when this issue was first raised at Question Time. I believe it was the health Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who responded in an inadequate way because she said that these were matters for the DTI. It is not good enough for an issue of such importance as the role of the community pharmacy to shuttlecock between departments without its role in the community being adequately defended.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, made a powerful case. He has had support from all Benches in this House. I hope that we shall have an assurance from the Minister that if the matter cannot be dealt with fully at this time of night and at this stage of the debate the message will go back firmly into Whitehall that allowing this issue to fall between departments is not good enough. We want a comprehensive response which gives what the public want--a guarantee that the community pharmacy is to be protected in order to fulfil a role which is needed in our community.
Lord Islwyn: My Lords, I applaud the efforts which have been made by the Minister to resolve this issue. I, too, resent the attacks on my colleague and friend, the noble Lord, Lord Morris. He is above reproach. I have always admired his sincerity in espousing so many worthy causes over the years. At all costs we must avoid the closure of local pharmacies. It would be highly detrimental to many communities, as I know from personal experience and through my career in the other place. There are isolated estates with low wage earners
Lord Hughes: My Lords, I do not often speak in your Lordships' House nowadays and I have picked a rotten time to depart from my usual rule. At the beginning of these proceedings I indicated an interest and said that I would not speak or take any further part in them. That was based on my experience in local government more than half-a-century ago when the advice was that if one had an interest one could declare it but one must not take any further part. It was not very often that a councillor was in that position. However, recently, two company directors declared an interest in an amendment and then proceeded to vote; so I do not believe that I need deny myself any further.
My experience and knowledge of what takes place in the community pharmacy makes me aware that the fear within such pharmacies of what this provision will do to them is real. I give the example of the over-the-counter sales in a community pharmacy. They represent anything from 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. of its income.
It has been said that anywhere between 25 and 50 per cent. of the total number of community pharmacies might have to close. Their income might diminish by anything from 7.5 to 15 per cent. Few community pharmacies could survive a loss of income on that scale. If they do not survive, people will have to go elsewhere for more than their over-the-counter products because there is also the matter of prescriptions. In many cases, the only other place to go for a prescription is Boots or its equivalent, which can be anything from 10 to 50 miles from some villages. I believe that when we last considered this matter, the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, spoke of experiences in her area and of having to put people on the bus. However, in many cases, the cost of getting a bus there and back would be more than the saving that might be made by using the supermarket.
I told the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, that I would be referring to what she said in Committee about prices. I apologise to the noble Baroness if that is all that has kept her here at this unearthly hour. If she proposed to be here anyway, so much the better. The noble Baroness said in Committee that a 24-pack of Asprin is sold in supermarkets for 39p while in a community pharmacy Disprin is £1.50. If I can read my own writing, she also said that Nurofen cost £4.69 in a community pharmacy and £1.99 in a supermarket.
I wondered why in the first case the noble Baroness compared Asprin with Disprin, rather than Asprin with Asprin, whereas in her second example she compared like with like, so I made further inquiries. Supermarkets sell such products in packs of 24, which is supposed to safeguard against overdosing. Community pharmacies sell in lots of 100 tablets and they sell 100 for 99p which is equivalent to less than 25p for 24 as compared to the supermarkets' 39p, so there is not much incentive to go to a supermarket to buy Asprin.
In the second case, the noble Baroness compared like with like. I am absolutely certain that the prices which the noble Baroness quoted are correct, but sometimes one can quote something which is absolutely correct and yet create a false impression. I wondered why in the second case the noble Baroness compared like with like because the difference was so great. I have found that just as Disprin is an alternative to Asprin, so too the pharmacist has an alternative to Nurofen, Ibuprofen. Local pharmacies can sell that for £1.39. Once again, that is cheaper than the figure quoted for the supermarket.
My noble friends Lord Morris of Manchester and Lord Graham have spoken of all the other advantages of community pharmacies as compared with supermarkets. A case in point which has occurred to me relates to one of the most widely used drugs, which is beneficial when properly used, paracetamol. But two other products can be bought, Lemsip and Night Nurse, which both contain paracetamol. The community pharmacist would tell a customer that if he used both products he should be careful because he might unwittingly overdose. Would a salesperson in a supermarket be in a position to give that advice to a purchaser?
My noble friend referred to the remarks of the director general on the radio. I did not hear them. I do not know what he meant by "considering my position". It is possible that he meant that he would have to consider whether he was doing it the right way. However, it is perhaps more likely that he meant he would have to consider whether he should continue as director general. Considering the impropriety of what he said on the radio, if they have to choose between losing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of local pharmacies or losing the director general, I believe that the public would prefer to see the director general tendering his resignation.
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