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Volume 408: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2003

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What assessment he has made of the implications for health care of the proposals from the Office of Fair Trading on the regulation of pharmacies. [122426]

Pharmacy is an integral part of the NHS. We are carefully considering the OFT report in the wider context of the important part that pharmacy plays in our plans to modernise NHS services, to reduce health inequality and to improve access and choice for patients.

These principles, together with the 2,500 letters we have received on the OFT proposals, will frame our response, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is co-ordinating.

I thank the Minister for what appeared to be a positive response. When the Government respond to the OFT, I hope that they will take account of the views of pharmacists and doctors, especially those in my constituency who work in small villages such as Bishopsteignton and Shaldon and fear that the pharmacy will close if the OFT proposals go ahead. Will she tell the OFT that pharmacists and doctors throughout the country are not happy with the proposals as they are at the moment?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about access to pharmacies, especially those in rural areas. I assure him that we take those concerns seriously. The role of pharmacists should be expanded so that they become more of a part of the primary care team. When we respond to the OFT report, we shall consider publishing a new draft framework for the national pharmacy contract. We are considering sitting down with pharmacists to decide what other services may be provided and how we may draw up a contract that takes account of their views and the need to expand their vital service as a greater part of the primary care team.

The thousands of people in my constituency who have contacted me on the issue very much welcome the fact that the Government have not just fully accepted the OFT proposals. They look forward to discovering what the Government think is the best way to recognise the importance of pharmacies in local communities. However, there is, of course, a period of uncertainty. Will my hon. Friend, whom I welcome to the Dispatch Box, ensure that we receive the Government's idea of the way forward as soon as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. He makes an important point. We need to respond to the report in the near future. In making that response, we also wish to take account of the Health Committee report, which was extremely helpful in explaining both the important part that pharmacists play in the wider primary health care team and the need to improve the current system, perhaps by introducing wider choice in some of the areas that pharmacists cover.