Off-patent Drugs Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:38 am on 7th November 2014.

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Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Shadow Minister (Health) 11:38 am, 7th November 2014

I congratulate Jonathan Evans on introducing this excellent and concise Bill, which Opposition Members support wholly. I will keep my remarks brief, because I think that there is plenty of time for us to do the business with the Bill this morning.

The principle of the Bill is one that the Labour party supports. We must do all we can to ensure that patients have timely access to safe drugs. As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the Bill would benefit very many people indeed. There is no doubt that the subject of off-patent drugs needs to be debated and, more importantly, requires action from this House. Now that we are aware of the issue, it would be remiss of us not to do something about it. We will support this Bill to ensure that people who are at risk of, or have been diagnosed with breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, leukaemia and many others—as well as all those who may be diagnosed with any of these conditions in future—have access to treatments that they would otherwise be denied: treatments that are effective and low cost, and change lives.

I hope that the Government are also going to support this potentially life-saving—as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, life-changing—Bill. The Minister himself has stated that a central part of his mission

“is to accelerate the discovery, design and adoption of new drugs in the NHS, making the UK the best place in the world to discover and design 21st-century health care technologies”,

and for Britain to be

“once again the best place in the world to discover new medicines and to be treated by them.”—[Hansard, 1 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 141-144.]

That is an aim we all share. We have our work cut out, but it is achievable.

Existing drugs can demonstrate great benefits but do not have licences under which to be marketed, meaning that access to them is low. Often a repurposed drug offers the best hope of a step change in treatment and therefore should not be forgotten or deprioritised. The views of clinicians on this issue have been exceptionally powerful. I will quote just a few. Harking back to the previous debate, we should listen to medical professionals when they are giving us advice that is, frankly, beyond dispute. Professor Anthony Howell, professor of medical oncology and research director of the Genesis breast cancer prevention centre at the University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust, says:

“Clinically-proven therapies to reduce the risk of breast cancer developing and spreading could bring a step change in breast cancer survival rates, but without the Bill we will not see a step change in the availability of these treatments.”

Professor Robert Coleman, Yorkshire cancer research professor of medical oncology at Sheffield cancer research centre, says:

“Repurposed bisphosphonate drugs could significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer spreading, and ultimately killing women, and would cost the NHS very little. However, without the Bill we are unlikely to see the wholesale change in prescribing behaviour that would be required to make these drugs routinely available.”

Dr Jeremy Chataway, consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and St Mary’s hospital, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, says:

“There are currently re-purposed medicines that have shown strong preliminary evidence that they could be effective in the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS), however the UK is currently lacking a system by which old drugs can be re-licensed for new purposes. This Bill would create a mechanism to potentially provide access to medicines that could help tens of thousands of people with untreatable MS.”

It is also powerful to see that, as the hon. Member for Cardiff North pointed out, the Bill is supported by a whole spectrum of medical charities: the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Breast Cancer Campaign—I praise it for its absolutely phenomenal work on the Bill—the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Cure Parkinson’s Trust, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, Breast Cancer Care, Leukaemia CARE, the Alzheimer’s Society, the Teenage Cancer Trust, and Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. All agree that we have a one-off opportunity to change the law and would like the results of research to be translated into clear, demonstrable, deliverable patient benefit.

We are talking about clinically proven drugs that cost virtually nothing but could bring a step change in survival rates. Zoledronic acid costs less than 5p a day per patient and could reduce the risk of death from breast cancer in post-menopausal women by 17%. This Bill is not about bringing untested drugs forward for use in the NHS—it is about ensuring that the drugs that can benefit patients, but in which pharmaceutical companies have no commercial interest, are available to treat myriad conditions and bring real patient benefits.

We must remember, though, that drugs are not the only tool to fight these conditions. With specific regard to cancer, we must ensure that bringing new drugs through is not to the detriment of patient access to radiotherapies and surgeries. We should remember that it is crucial that patients can get tested quickly if cancer is suspected. That is why a future Labour Government will guarantee that NHS patients will wait no longer than one week for cancer tests and results by 2020. Labour supports the principle behind the Bill, and we will support its Second Reading.

There is something else to consider. This Bill provides a simple remedy to an obvious and avoidable problem. It is underpinned by irresistible logic. To thwart it would represent an act of vandalism. Right now, our country is facing a collective nervous breakdown. Faced with internal separation and separation from the European Union, fear and loathing stalks this septic isle. Every day, people ask themselves, “What is the point of politics? What is the point of Parliament?” Unless we act to address these legitimate concerns, this place will drift towards not only irrelevance but illegitimacy. The purpose of each of us in this House, on both sides, is to make better the lives of the people who sent us here. That is our principal aim. I urge Members in all parts of the House, and the Government, to do what we were sent here to do—act to make life better and to demonstrate that Parliament, and politics, can work.