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Volume 721: debated on Monday 22 November 1965

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asked the Minister of Health what has been the increase to date in the number and cost of prescriptions issued since the abolition of prescription charges.

In the period from 1st February to 31st August, 1965, the latest for which information is available, chemists in England and Wales dispensed 23 million more prescriptions than in the corresponding months of 1964, an increase of about 19 per cent. The cost was £13 million, or 22 per cent. higher.

Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that this very considerable increase represents an unnecessary wastage of the nation's resources and, furthermore, a considerable additional burden on our general practitioners, who are called upon to write out these prescriptions? Does not be agree that this is one of the factors which are causing dissatisfaction with the National Health Service?

No, Sir. I do not accept either statement in the hon. Member's supplementary question. Although the increase in the number of prescriptions since the abolition of charges is a good deal higher than was expected, the average cost per prescription is lower than was expected. This seems mainly due to the prescribing of small quantities. Past experience has shown an upward trend in the drug bill, and no doubt this would have continued whether or not charges had been abolished.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that hon. Members opposite are implying that these prescriptions were issued unnecessarily? Is not this a reflection upon the integrity of the medical profession?

That is a perfectly reasonable interpretation on the part of my hon. Friend.

Can the Minister then explain the basis of the confident estimate that he gave, when these charges were abolished, that there would be no sizeable increase?

It may be that the degree of deterrence, and perhaps the hardship which the existence of charges brought about, was underestimated, but, as I have told the House, it is very difficult to analyse the complex of causes that leads to changes in the size of the drug bill. There is no doubt that these figures are not solely the result of the abolition of the charges.

Can the Minister tell up what the figures would have been had the rate of increase in recent years been maintained?