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Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, perhaps I may add to the compliments paid to the Government for their initiative with regard to the conference about the future of the Palestinian administration. What steps do the Government propose to take to alleviate what is now very close to being a total breakdown in the supply of food and other essentials to the Palestinians? In the past few days UNWA has warned that a complete breakdown of Palestinian society is very close and that the level of nutrition among children is now equivalent to that in the Congo or Zimbabwe. Does she agree that if that condition remains, the non-violent majority of Palestinians may well not remain non-violent for very long?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with what the noble Baroness has said. United Kingdom bilateral aid for the Palestinians in the period from 1996–97 to 2001–02 totalled more than £48 million. We also provided £65.9 million to UNWA for Palestinian refugees in that same period.

There is also, unfortunately, a history of destruction of humanitarian aid on the part of the Israeli defence forces. We deplore such acts. We believe the action of the Israeli

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defence forces must be proportionate. Together with our EU partners, we have raised concerns about those issues with the Israeli Government.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, looking a little further ahead, given that the two facts about this distressing situation are that the case for a successful Palestinian Arab state is unanswerable, but equally that the present Palestinian Authority is both corrupt and incompetent, is there not a strong case for Her Majesty's Government supporting a United Nations authority in a Palestinian Arab state until such time as an indigenous leadership emerges which is capable of leading the country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, our priority at the moment is to ensure that the Quartet working on the road map is given the best possible chance of success. Of course it is difficult to discuss that with the Israeli Government while the details of the government remain to be decided. We know that the Likud Party will join the National Religious Party and the secular party, Shinui, in forming the government, but as yet the disposition of which politicians will occupy which roles has not been decided.

However, when it is decided, we will want to see rapid progress on the road map which has been formulated by the Quartet and which we believe should be supported.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one urgent and necessary way to assist the non-violent majority of Israelis and Palestinians is not only to dismantle the illegal settlements to which the Minister referred—on which I fear that the inclusion of the National Religious Party in the Israeli Government is not an encouraging prospect—but to dismantle the security fence, which has already absorbed a large amount of Palestinian territory into Israel and is causing massive human suffering day by day by separating Palestinians from their land and their livelihood?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, settlement activity and the security fence are causes of great concern to Her Majesty's Government. Settlement activity has increased during the past year; it is important to keep that issue in the forefront of our minds. We are concerned about the 360 kilometre-long fence, to which the noble Lord referred, which takes up so much Palestinian land and separates families. Our embassy in Tel Aviv has raised with the Israeli Government our concern about the location and the impact of the security fence. We fully understand Israel's need to take steps within the law to protect itself from terrorist attack, but that must be achieved through a negotiated peace, not by measures such as the security fence.

Lord Turnberg: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the horrendous anti-Israel propaganda

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issued by the Palestinian Authority's state-sponsored media is unhelpful to the suffering Palestinians as well as the unfortunate Israelis?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords, I strongly believe that. As we have discussed many times in your Lordships' House, this is a terrible situation in which the cycle of violence, fed by messages of hatred and misunderstanding on both sides, does nothing to help the majority among the Israelis and the Palestinians who, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, pointed out, want to co-operate towards a settlement of the outstanding issues. That constant cycle of rhetoric—violent rhetoric, if I may say so—is most unhelpful.


2.52 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the Department of Health has taken a view on the report by the Office of Fair Trading into The control of entry regulations and retail pharmacy services in the UK.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we are considering the report from the Director-General of Fair Trading carefully. We have invited views and are meeting key interests to hear their reactions. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is co-ordinating that work.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As he will be aware, the issue of the abolition of entry controls for community pharmacies is of great importance. Does he agree that the future of pharmacies is not just about price competition but about healthcare, quality of service to the community and local people's access to pharmacy services? Will the Department of Health ensure that the debate is placed in the proper context and give robust evidence to the OFT about the healthcare issues involved?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand the issues that the noble Lord has raised. It will be for the Government as a whole to respond to the OFT report. My department will play a full part in the discussions that will lead to an eventual decision.

The Office of Fair Trading started from the premise that entry controls to any market lead to higher prices, less innovation and poorer quality of services. It also considered that abolition of entry controls would not lead to a substantial reduction in the number of pharmacies. We shall of course listen most carefully to those intimately concerned with community pharmacies to discover their views on the matter.

Lord Fowler: My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the largest group of community pharmacists

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in the country. Given that there is no suggestion of profiteering by pharmacies, perhaps I may press the Minister to go one step further. Will he give an assurance that the Government will decide the issue essentially on the contributions that pharmacies make to healthcare? Will he confirm the message of his own excellent White Paper, published two years ago—that the Government want an enlarged role for community pharmacists inside the National Health Service?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we will need to consider many factors when examining the OFT report. The noble Lord is right about the White Paper: the Government envisage a greatly enhanced role for community pharmacies. We believe that they could be used much more by the public to give advice. Indeed, NHS Direct now routinely refers 3 to 5 per cent of all its callers to community pharmacists.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that at present, patients—especially elderly patients, with whom we must be concerned—have ready access to a spread of pharmacies throughout the country, which is most helpful to healthcare? If entry regulations disappear and there is complete de-control, the ambition of supermarkets will be such that many pharmacies will be in difficulty and no longer viable, which will be seriously dangerous to people's health. That is a considerable matter that the department should take fully into account.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend raises some important issues, which my department and others will need to consider. The OFT concluded that, although access is generally good, there are a number of areas in which it could be improved. It also pointed out that there is a high concentration of certain pharmacy chains in some areas, which limits choice.

Although I agree that the current network of community pharmacists is invaluable to this country, we do not have a perfect distribution of pharmacies. That must also be taken into account.

Earl Howe: My Lords, in considering the matter, will the Government bear in mind the important role played by dispensing general practitioners in remote rural areas? I am sure that the Minister is aware that dispensing GPs frequently rely on dispensing income to support the continuation of medical services in country villages.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand the noble Earl's point. Discussions between dispensing doctors and the pharmacy profession have always been of great interest and intensity over the years. We have received initial views from the British Medical Association and the Dispensing Doctors Association and expect them to comment formally to us in due course.

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