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Volume 401: debated on Thursday 20 March 2003

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If she will make a statement on the Office of Fair Trading report on pharmacy services. [103885]

We received the OFT report on 17 January and we are considering our response across Government, in consultation, of course, with the devolved Administrations and relevant stakeholders. As part of that process, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), wrote to all hon. Members seeking their views.

May I tell my right hon. Friend that I have received objections from hundreds of constituents who are outraged by the OFT's proposals? They vigorously protest that their local pharmacies are convenient, that they know and trust the pharmacist, that they often have no transport to go elsewhere, and that they are not pushed into buying unnecessary products. Does my right hon. Friend agree that good health is supported by a trusting relationship between pharmacist and public, and can she assure me that the vital network of local pharmacies—which commands a high level of confidence and satisfaction from our communities, as is recognised in the OFT's report—will be protected and that nothing will be done that will prejudice the local pharmacy services that so many of our constituents value highly?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, I have had similar representations and discussions in my constituency. I welcome the OFT's report, which is a useful analysis of the competition aspects of the control of entry regulations, and of the benefits that greater competition can bring. I am also clear, however, that there are limits to markets, particularly in the delivery of health services. It is essential that pharmacists should be able to fulfil not only their present valued and trusted role but the wider role envisaged for them in the NHS plan: simply deregulating the market will not do that. We therefore need a balanced package of measures, and that is precisely what we will draw up, in consultation, as I have already indicated.

I welcome the Secretary of State's response to that question. I suggest that the OFT was simply wrong in believing that pharmacists are merely shops; in fact, they are a network of primary health care professionals who play a key role in preventive health and in distributing drugs to the elderly and the sick. The Government will not be forgiven lightly if she allows the pharmacists to go the same way as the post office network.

The OFT's remit is to look at the effect on competition, among other things, of Government regulation. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman—who, at least some of the time, is a supporter of competition policies—would welcome that role for the OFT. It is not part of the OFT's remit, however, to look at the much wider health service objectives or the role that community pharmacists can play—an even greater role, as I have indicated—in supporting modernisation and improvements in the national health service. That is our job in government, and, as I have indicated, we will come forward with a balanced package that will achieve those health and community aims.

The Secretary of State will know that in Scotland the situation is slightly different, because health is dissolved—[Interruption.] Health is devolved, but competition policy is not. She will also be aware that the Scottish Parliament is due to be dissolved at the end of next week for the forthcoming election. Will she give an assurance that no decision will be made on the OFT policy until there has been consultation with the new Scottish Parliament and new Scottish Executive following elections on 1 May?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that the NHS might be dissolved if the nationalists won the elections. Let me make it clear: of course we are already discussing this issue with our colleagues, not only in Scotland but in Wales and Northern Ireland. We will arrive at the decision in full consultation with the devolved Administration, who, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, are responsible for the health service in Scotland.

There are strong concerns about this issue in Cornwall, where many of our supermarkets are out of town, and I receive petitions almost daily opposing the proposals. I am glad to hear the Secretary of State say that nothing will be done that would hurt local pharmacies. May I reiterate, however, that real concerns exist, and we urgently need reassurance?

I entirely understand not only my hon. Friend's concerns but those of her constituents. Every Member has had similar representations. Let me stress that although competition can clearly bring benefits to consumers, the crucial issue is that pharmacists should be able to enhance their role within the NHS plan and meet the health care needs of all our constituents, particularly those living in poorer areas and rural areas.

Since the OFT's report confirms that community pharmacies do an excellent job, are trusted by their customers and are accessible to the vast majority of people, is it not clear that were the recommendations accepted it would show once more that this Labour Government care nothing either for those small and often family-run businesses that are the backbone of many communities, or for their customers, who rely on them as a valuable source of health advice?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not hear my earlier answers on precisely that point. I am glad that the Conservative party now recognises that there are limits to markets, especially in health care. I hope that Conservative Members will support the other policies that our Government have introduced to promote social inclusion and to ensure that markets work for everyone's benefit. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will soon tell us that he supports policies on the minimum wage, rights at work and improved health and safety in the workplace, which are other policies that set limits on uncontrolled markets.

Will my right hon. Friend take account of the phrase, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? In Scotland, there is no question that Labour will not lead the Administration after May, as it does at present, and the Scottish Pharmaceutical General Council, the professional body for pharmacists, is working with the Scottish Executive on an extremely ambitious programme for the expansion of community pharmacies, which goes far beyond anything envisaged in England at present. It would be highly dangerous for those ambitious plans to be frustrated by a cack-handed approach by the OFT to what is currently an excellent service for communities.

The service is indeed excellent in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. It can be improved further, as my hon. Friend said, by the plans that are being developed in Scotland. As far as England is concerned, the NHS plan sets out a full vision of the greater role that pharmacists can play not only in helping to ensure that patients get the full benefit of medicines, but by undertaking some of the initial diagnosis and advice work. We value pharmacists' work and think that it can be improved and strengthened further in the NHS plan. However, let me stress that decisions will not be made by the OFT because its role in these matters is advisory. The Government will make the decisions in the full context of the NHS plan and equivalent developments in the devolved Administrations.

Will the Secretary of State be a little more open about when she expects the announcements to be made? Whether she likes it or not, the OFT's proposals have caused great unease among our constituents and communities. She said that the report was published on 17 January and that she is in discussions with the devolved Parliaments, but they are about to dissolve before elections. When will we get an answer to this particular problem?