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Volume 401: debated on Thursday 20 March 2003

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To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (1) what impact he expects the implementation of the proposed OFT recommendations to have upon people employed in community pharmacies; [103329](2) what benefits he estimates would be gained by the deregulation of pharmacies as recommended by the OFT investigation into the control of entry regulations for pharmacy contracts; and what studies have been carried out to assess the impact of pharmacy deregulation on the businesses of community pharmacies; [103327](3) what effect he estimates

(a) increased competition in the pharmaceutical industry will have on prescription charges and (b) the deregulation of control of entry requirements for pharmacy contracts will have on disadvantaged groups in society; and if he will make a statement; [103330]

(4) what effect he expects the implementation of the proposed OFT regulations will have on (a) the distribution of pharmacies and (b) pharmacist and patient relations. [103328]

The Office of Fair Trading examined the UK market for retail pharmacy services in order to consider whether consumers are best served by the current statutory controls under which pharmacies can dispense NHS prescriptions. The OFT conclusion was that they are not and their report therefore recommended abolition of these controls in order to improve competition; reduce prices for over the counter medicines; and improve both access to, and the quality of, pharmaceutical services.Competition and consumer matters are reserved to the United Kingdom Government in Westminster and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is responsible for co-ordinating the response across Government to the report. However, Health Service pharmacy policy is a devolved matter and the regulations imposing controls on pharmacies are a matter for Ministers in each country. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is therefore working closely with Health Departments and other Government Departments to make sure that Government's response to the report takes account not only of competition and consumer interests, but widerpublic policy objectives. It is not considered that the report will affect current prescription charge arrangements.No decisions have been reached on the OFT recommendation and, as yet, there are no proposals for changes to the legislation. We have invited views from a wide range of stakeholders and are considering these carefully. This includes responses from political representatives, the pharmaceutical profession, the Health Service, patient representative bodies and the general public.