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Community Pharmacies

Volume 406: debated on Thursday 5 June 2003

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What representations she has received on the future of community pharmacies. [116513]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Miss Melanie Johnson)

A very substantial number and range of stakeholders have been feeding in their views on the Office of Fair Trading's report, both through the appropriate Health Departments and directly to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Does the Minister agree that the present structure of community pharmacies provides a high level of access to patients, including vulnerable patients such as those who are elderly, in rural areas and on lower incomes? Does she agree that when the Government consider the OFT report it is very important that health policy should not lose out to competition policy?

I agree that we need to achieve a balanced package in this area, and proposals for such a package will be offered for consultation before the summer recess. We have made it clear that we favour change to open up the market and to improve quality and access. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that access is very important, but we do not want to diminish pharmacies' crucial role in local and rural communities, and in respect of people who do not have easy access to transport.

I am concerned that my hon. Friend's comments make this issue sound predominantly a rural matter. However, inner-city areas such as my constituency have a disproportionately high number of elderly people who use community pharmacy facilities. Given the low level of car ownership among those people, is not it essential that the existing community pharmacy network is maintained?

I can only agree strongly with my hon. Friend that community pharmacies are as important to inner-city areas as they are to rural and poorer areas. We have been well aware of that in our work to produce a balanced package. The Department of Health, which leads on the health policy aspects of the package, has had considerable input, and it is very conscious of these matters.

While I fully endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on health access, does the Minister understand that in rural areas, where there may be only one independent pharmacy in a small rural town, it will be difficult for that pharmacy to compete with large out-of-town supermarkets? Does she understand that such a pharmacy provides not only health advice but a range of social services advice, and that, when combined with the loss of many other rural facilities—for example, post offices, magistrates courts and police stations—it will be a heavy blow if the only independent pharmacy is forced to close because of full competition?

It is for just that reason that we are balancing health and competition and that we have put the emphasis on continuing, and indeed broadening access. That issue obviously needs special consideration in respect of rural and more isolated pharmacies. Indeed, the Department of Health already has support systems for essential small pharmacies in any event. The hon. Gentleman may like to know that in March 1992 there were 9,765 pharmacies, as against 9,756 in 2002, so pharmacy distribution and the number of pharmacies has been maintained at much the same level over the past decade or so.