Medicines (Prescription Only) Order

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st January 1978.

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Photo of Dr Gerard Vaughan Dr Gerard Vaughan , Reading South 12:00 am, 31st January 1978

(by Private Notice)asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the action that the Government propose to take regarding the introduction of the Medicines (Prescription Only) Order 1977.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

The essential provisions of this order were made known to interested organisations in October 1977, when they were notified that the date proposed for implementation of Part III is 1st February, 1978, i.e. the appointed day. No concern was expressed by the pharmacists until after the order had been made and laid. Since it is our policy to work in close co-operation with the pharmaceutical profession and industry, we have taken account of these last-minute representations by announcing today our decision to make an amending order as soon as possible allowing a transitional period of six months. This order will cover the human and animal medicines in question which have not previously been subject to prescription only.

We are, of course, required under the terms of the Medicines Act to consult interested organisations before we make such an order. The amending order will come into operation as quickly as possible, and with the good will and cooperation of all concerned I would hope that it will be made in about two weeks.

Photo of Dr Gerard Vaughan Dr Gerard Vaughan , Reading South

Is the Minister aware that to anyone who knows the real situation that statement will be totally and completely unsatisfactory? The Government have created an unbelievable muddle over this matter. I ask the Minister to take immediate action to stop these regulations.

First, the law will be changed from midnight tonight. For a great many chemists the first time that they heard about this was at the end of last week, and for some of them it was only yesterday. The Government have chosen to ignore representations from every side of the industry, including the recommendations from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Second, the Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments voted against considering the order this morning.

Photo of Dr Gerard Vaughan Dr Gerard Vaughan , Reading South

I cannot believe that this House will wish to have the law changed tonight knowing that it will cause confusion and inconvenience to a very large number of people. I understand that it will have to be changed again in a few weeks' time, so I ask the Government to face up to their failure, to withdraw this order today and to replace it with a new order with a transitional period of six months, starting immediately.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

On behalf of the Department I entirely refute the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, which he also made in Committee this morning. For the benefit of those hon. Members who were not present and may not know, we had in that Committee one and a half hours' full debate on this issue. There has been no muddle. We have not ignored representations. We have taken account of the representations that were made. That is why we have announced our intention of introducing an amending order.

For the benefit of hon. Members who may not know the background to this order, we had four years' consultations with the industry. The basic details of the order, the essential provisions, were known more than three months ago. The order was laid in Parliament on 20th December 1977. It is absurd for members of the industry or those seeking information on their behalf to come along now and say that they knew about it only at the last minute. That is absolute nonsense.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

If I understand the Minister aright, the order is postponed for six months. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] What is to happen during the interim period? Have chemists been informed exactly what the present position is? Secondly, am I right in thinking that many ordinary medicines which people buy from general merchants in the countryside will be affected? If so, what arrangements is the Minister making about these?

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

First, the order takes effect tonight. It contains many provisions and it will continue in full force until we have an amending order merely for those medicines that I mentioned earlier, human and animal, which have not previously needed to have a prescription before one could obtain them from a pharmacist. For reasons which I explained in detail to the Committee this morning, the Government have no power to postpone the order, nor any power to make an amending order which would have retrospective effect.

The right hon. Gentleman's second point concerned the consumer aspects of this matter. This is an order that brings into force a great piece of consumer protection legislation.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

Those who say "rubbish" should read the debate that took place this morning and the explanation that was given.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

I am sorry to hear an Opposition spokesman say that this great consumer protection measure is rubbish. I think that consumers throughout the country will be interested to know that that is the official Opposition view. There have been a few stories in the Press—I think that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) may be aware of these—to the effect that this affects not only pharmacists in rural areas but pharmacists throughout the country. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the vast majority of home remedies will remain available without prescription.

Photo of Mr Laurie Pavitt Mr Laurie Pavitt , Brent South

Is it not a fact that this order, which implements part of an Act passed 10 years ago, has been under discussion for years with the interests concerned? It is very complicated, having 10 pages of facts and 84 pages of schedules covering many diverse matters. If the Government withdrew it tonight, apart from some problems being solved, would that not mean that the Minister would add to his Department many more problems? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the second order that he proposes to introduce will in practice—in spite of the fact that at midnight tonight the order comes into legal operation—mean that with the Government's new announcement of a new order coming in giving a six-month transitional period there will be no real difficulty in the interim?

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

I do not expect any real difficulty whatsoever and would not have done so even if we had not announced an amending order, because the representations of the pharmacists were merely for a period of delay. For those who were not aware of the letter sent to all organisations, including pharmacists, in October, those who were not aware that the order had been made, those who were not aware that a Press notice had been issued by my Department, setting out on 5th January, some weeks ago, what was to happen, and those who ignored all those indications that something was in the wind—it is in order to please and to help those that we shall have this amending order. Until that order comes in there may be some inconvenience to some pharmacists, but I hope that the vast majority of the profession has already made its plans.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

Is the Minister aware that, inadvertently perhaps, he misled the House just now when he said that the order was laid on 20th December? It was laid on 5th January. That was the first that the House knew about the order, whatever consultations he may have had with other organisations. Has the Minister not recognised the blunder that the Government have made? He has recognised it by saying that he will bring in an amending order.

Is it not putting it far too lightly to say that it is just an inconvenience to the chemists? Will not they be acting illegally for a matter of the month or two months that it takes him to bring in the amending order? What is he going to do about that? Will he have an indemnity for them acting illegally for all that time? Can he not bring in the amending order, treating the consultations that he had under the order that we are now discussing as sufficient consultation for the amending order to be brought in overnight, so that chemists will not be committing illegal acts tomorrow?

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman's attitude. I do not think for one moment that any chemist would disobey the law as from tonight. The law is quite clear and it has been notified to pharmacists. There is no blunder. The point that the hon. Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan) and his right hon. and hon. Friends cannot appreciate is that the Government have made a last-minute concession in response to last-minute representations. Had the pharmaceutical industry made representations after the letter of October, of course they could have been taken into account much more quickly than they have been.

Photo of Dr Gerard Vaughan Dr Gerard Vaughan , Reading South

One cannot govern by letter.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook , Edinburgh Central

For the benefit of hon. Members who were not appointed to the Committee this morning, will my hon. Friend assure the House that the measure that he is proposing will meet the problem faced by the pharmacist who finds that he has stock in hand that he would otherwise not be able to sell after midnight tonight? Will my hon. Friend accept that, whatever the case for the new regulations, there was never a case that they should cause financial loss to the pharmacist with stock in hand adequate for the normal demands of his clients?

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

Stock in hand will be affected only to a limited extent by the provisions of the order, that is, making certain medicines previously available over the counter in pharmacies in fact available from midnight tonight by prescription only. They will obviously have to alter the labels on the stock or await the amending order coming through. But I cannot believe that this will cause more than a temporary and slight inconvenience.

Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells

Perhaps the Minister will try to be a little less cross and even less aggressive about this matter. Will he reflect upon what he has said today—that this is only last-minute opposition? Will he reflect as to what is the correct date on which the order was laid? Is it, as he said, 20th December, or is it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) said, 5th January? Will he not also reflect on the fact that at least one pharmacist, Crown Chemicals Ltd., which happens to be a manufacturer in my constituency of veterinary medicines, is caught by the Part III provisions and complained on 13th December to the Ministry of Agriculture that it would be caught by the prescription only rule? How does that marry up with the representations that the Minister has given to the House about last-minute objections?

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

The point about last-minute objections concerned pharmacists dealing with medicines for human consumption. That was the main concern expressed in the Standing Committee this morning. There were earlier representations on the veterinary side by certain firms. These have been taken into account. That is why the amending order will cover both human and veterinary medicines.

I apologise to the right hon. Member for Crosby and the House for a slip of the tongue. I said "laid" instead of "made". The order was made on 20th December and laid on 5th January.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I declare my interest. Does the Minister accept that an individual chemist, who cannot have been party to the discussions on the details of the order, will have had only 21 days' notice at most if he acted promptly on the full details of the regulations? If he fails to absorb a total of nine Statutory Instruments by tonight, he can certainly accidentally be breaking the law from tomorrow. Does the hon. Gentleman know of any precedent for the solution that he has proposed whereby certain acts are to be unlawful from midnight tonight until the Government come back, in at least a fortnight, with an unspecified amending order which will put the law back to where it was?

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

The pharmaceutical industry had very good notice—over three months—in the letter that was sent out to representative organisations. I do not know about the relationship between head offices of representative organisations and the individual membership—that is a matter entirely for them—but the Department obviously cannot undertake to circularise every individual pharmacist in the country.

When the order was laid before Parliament, a Press notice was issued. I find it incredible that any pharmacist could have been unaware that something was in the wind. The details, which are basically reproduced in this order, were set out in October. It ill becomes representatives purporting to speak for the industry to show it in such a poor managerial light.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Does the Under-Secretary realise that what he is recommending amounts to letting the trains run over the Tay Bridge for two weeks after it has been swept away? Is not the way to deal with the problem for the Leader of the House to announce a change in business for today for the Government to table a Prayer against this Statutory Instrument, to be taken tonight, and for them to advise the House to pass it, in which event they will annul this Statutory Instrument? That is the way to deal with the matter. It is within the Government's power. Why do they not do the sensible thing instead of letting the trains go on running for another 14 days after the bridge has been swept away?

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

The procedure today is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. We indicated in Standing Committee this morning and to the House this afternoon what we intend to do. We think that is the best way to deal with the situation that has arisen—

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

—because of the last-minute representations—I stress that—by pharmacists in the past few days.

Photo of Mr Dudley Smith Mr Dudley Smith , Warwick and Leamington

If the Under-Secretary is so guiltless, why is he proposing to introduce amended legislation? Is he aware that any fair-minded person who attended the Standing Committee this morning would believe that the Department had been guilty of a crass bungle, because the order was laid during the recess and there has been no opportunity for discussion or consideration before this morning?

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), I declare my interest, as well as my interest on behalf of the public. As a result of the Department's bungling, many members of the public will be denied the medicines that they are used to getting.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

I should like to put the record absolutely straight. That is not a correct statement of the position. The vast majority of home remedies will continue to be available under a parallel order—the Medicines (General Sales List) Order—which will also be effective from tomorrow. An extensive list of medicines that can be sold with reasonable safety, other than by a pharmacist, has been specified. These medicines are not affected by the Prescription Only Order. Commonly used products—for example. codeine and kaolin and morphine mixture—which may at present be purchased over the pharmacy counter will continue to be available at the recommended dose without the need for a prescription.

The story that started this matter off yesterday in the Daily Telegraph—a paper not exactly noted for its ability to get scoops—was wrong in some respects.

The amending order is being introduced not to save the Government but to help pharmacists whose representatives have pleaded with us to do something for their members.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I shall call the two hon. Members who have been rising all the time.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn Sir Nicholas Fairbairn , Kinross and West Perthshire

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State on the certainty with which he knows what is good for us all. However, his arrogant aggression in this matter overlooks the fact that we do not want a lot of Socialists telling the consumer how to look after himself. The consumer can do it for himself.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

I thought that there was all-party agreement that we should restrict the sale of medicines, and dangerous medicines at that—some are extremely dangerous—to the general public in the way that we have done.

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

I should like to make a final plea to the hon. Gentleman. Does he not understand that some of these products are seasonal where the off-take in the winter months is very low? Stocks will have been left over from the summer. Does it not seem farcical that for two weeks such medicines are to be banned and that after that time they are to be allowed to be got rid of over a period of time? Will he confirm that pharmacists will have to relabel products for the interim two weeks? That is what he said earlier.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Waltham Forest Walthamstow

The order requires products to be relabelled before they can be sold. No products have been banned. They have been put into three categories under a related series of orders, including this one: the general sale list, the medium list and the list for prescription only. The fuss is about products that have previously not been on prescription now going on prescription. This is a consumer protection measure. Products have not ben banned. They can still be obtained on prescription.

Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House. under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter, of which I have just given you notice, Mr. Speaker, it not having been possible earlier by reason of the fact that the Under-Secretary was to make a statement in answer to a Private Notice Question.

The matter that I desire to raise is the making of the order with which the House has just dealt and the refusal of the Minister to seek to annul that order pending the introduction of a transition period that he proposes to introduce after consultation.

I submit that this matter, in respect of veterinary products at least, is both specific and important and requires urgent consideration.

The reason is that the Minister, having spoken with great indignation of last-minute objections by the pharmaceutical industry, nevertheless makes the order binding equally on those who manufacture veterinary products which may be caught by the provisions of Part III of the Medicines Act. These are now to be sold only on prescription. That, as the Minister knows, means that manufacturers, such as the one I identified earlier, will have six to eight months of stock left on their shelves and be unable to get rid of it through ordinary trade outlets I know not whether it is to be left to them to break the law until the transitional order is made. But this is a matter of grave concern and importance.

The Minister, having said that only last-minute representations had been made by the pharmacists, took care to exculpate from that charge manufacturers of veterinary products. It is right to point out that representations were made to the Minister of Agriculture as early as 13th December. Why in those circumstances this course should be taken defies belief and understanding. Therefore, to my mind it is a matter of which the House should be informed at the earliest possible opportunity.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he belives should have urgent consideration, namely, the application of today's order to the manufacturers of veterinary products. I have given careful consideration to the hon. and learned Gentleman's representations. I listened to him with care. But I must rule, after taking into account the several factors set out in Standing Order No. 9, that I cannot submit his application to the House.

As the House knows, I am discouraged by the Standing Order from giving the reasons for my decision.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Arising out of that last matter, will you give some guidance to the House on the procedure in dealing with difficult problems which confront us when Statutory Instruments are tabled in this way?

I attended the proceedings of the Committee this morning, although I was not a member of the Committee, as did a number of other right hon. and hon. Members. It was the only opportunity that the House has had to debate this matter. The debate lasted one and a half hours, and it was held on the day upon which, at midnight, all these regulations were due to come into effect.

At the end of the morning, a majority of those hon. Members present who were members of the Committee were able to vote, and they cast their votes contrary to the Government's wishes. However, the vote was utterly meaningless.

This is or is supposed to be a legislative institution. It was the clear wish of most of those right hon. and hon. Members who spoke this morning, as evidenced by the vote, that something should be done to delay the implementation of the order at midnight. However, it seems that our procedures allow no way in which that opinion can be expressed and no way in which the Minister's determination to go ahead with the regulations can in any way be modified.

Can you at least bring this matter to the attention of our Committee on Procedure, or can you give some guidance about how it can be bought within the capacity of Parliament to check the Minister's determination to carry on with his regulation-making powers?

Photo of Mr Laurie Pavitt Mr Laurie Pavitt , Brent South

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I request you to ask the Procedure Committee to look again at the way in which we deal with these Statutory Instruments in Committee upstairs? It is highly unsatisfactory to right hon. and hon. Members in most parts of the House that, at the end of a long discussion, whether we take note of, or whether we have considered, the Statutory Instrument in question makes no difference at all to the outcome.

I think that it would be desirable, therefore, to have a Committee make a decision that something should be done to give effect to a vote which has that result and that hon. Members should not feel that whatever they say makes not the slightest difference to what follows.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner , Bolsover

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before you give this matter any consideration, I hope that you will take into account the many documents which we receive from the Common Market, some of them asking us to take note, some asking us to approve, bearing in mind that occasionally they are not approved by the House, that sometimes we get the wrong documents and that sometimes we get them in the wrong language. You know, Mr. Speaker, all the instances during the course of the past several years.

If there is to be an in-depth study of this matter by you or by the Procedure Committee, I hope that that matter, too, will be investigated. I know that the Opposition are not interested. They are the European party, represented by their Leader, as she has said on many occasions. Nevertheless, if we are to have an investigation in depth, let us study the lot.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. This debate started by an Opposition Prayer. Has that Opposition Prayer been removed from the Order Paper by the matter being sent upstairs to a Committee? Does not that Prayer still stand on the Order Paper, and is it not possible to debate it?

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

The right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) is quite correct. Paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 73A lays down a procedure which enables the House to take a decision on a Prayer to annul an order which has been referred to a Standing Committee after the Committee has reported. This Committee has reported.

In reply to the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) and Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), this really is a matter for the Select Committee. My task is to interpret the rules as best I can. However, those who are responsible will have heard the discussion, and they will know that the hon. Members want this House to have its feelings registered.

Photo of Mr Cranley Onslow Mr Cranley Onslow , Woking

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I put it to you—and perhaps the Leader of the House will listen—that, since it is apparently possible for the Opposition Prayer to be dealt with and, if it were carried, to restore the matter to some sort of sanity, it would be reasonable if early time could be found for the debate on the Prayer?

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I may have misled the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). I hope that I did not mislead the House. What is open to the House under this rule is to take a decision—not to have a further debate, but to come to a decision.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I, through you, ask when the Leader of the House will allow us to take that decision? Will it be sprung on us tonight, or shall we have notice on the Order Paper for it tomorrow? I fear that it may come before us without a sufficient number of right hon. and hon. Members knowing about it. I hope that we shall be given due warning.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner , Bolsover

Hon. Members want to clock on. They are too busy lining their pockets.

Later,

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have handed in to the Clerk at the Table a Prayer praying that the Medicines (Prescription Only) Order 1977, a copy of which was laid before Parliament on 5th January 1978, be annulled.

May I, through you, ask the Leader of the House whether he will permit that Prayer to be taken tonight, which is the last occasion on which the House can take it so that the order can be annulled before it comes into effect? I am sure that if you heard the exchanges a little earlier you will be of the opinion that that is the wish of a substantial number of hon. Members, and this is the last occasion on which the Prayer can be taken if it is to be effective.

I think that the House would want to hear from the Leader of the House not silence but a "Yes" or "No" to this proposal.

Photo of Mr Oscar Murton Mr Oscar Murton , Poole

That is not a matter for the Chair.