Independent pharmacies play an enormously important part in providing pharmaceutical services to the UK. However, the NHS (Pharmaceutical Services) Regulations treat all providers equally, and we do not intend to change that to discriminate against a particular sector.
The Minister will be aware from the representations of colleagues throughout the House that small pharmacists are an invaluable part of the local community. They are often the cement that keeps a local parade of shops going, for example, in deprived communities such as mine in Nottingham, North. The giant supermarkets are usually most welcome in communities, but does the Minister accept that they also have a tendency to suck in other services, particularly pharmacies, and not to provide the sort of intimate and local service that reaches out into the community? Will he take every possible step to ensure that local pharmacies are encouraged to survive and thrive?
We certainly want local pharmacies both to survive and to thrive. Indeed, the Health Bill, which was before the House yesterday, introduces pharmaceutical needs assessments, which will encourage primary care trusts to ensure that they consider the needs in their area. We know that different parts of the community have different needs. Young mothers who live at home with their children, and older people, sometimes like small locally based pharmacies, while younger men sometimes prefer the less intimate surroundings of a supermarket. There are all sorts of diverse needs to provide for. What we want is a broad range of services and pharmacies, ranging from small traders to multinationals.
I have a number of independent pharmacies in towns and villages in my constituency where there are no supermarkets, but supermarkets are not too far away. If those supermarkets suck in some of the customers of the independent pharmacies, we shall see death by a thousand cuts. Some of the ageing population will not be able to get into the major towns, so they will lose an essential place where they can get their medicines. If we do not want to see pharmacies going the same way as the post offices have gone over the past five years, the Government will have to take action now. What action is the Minister prepared to take?
I have just said that the Bill before the House yesterday provides action in the form of pharmaceutical needs assessments, so that primary care trusts are able to assess local needs and ensure that they respond to precisely the sort of circumstances that the hon. Gentleman raised.
First, I thank the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency for publishing its new guidelines on the sale of codeine-containing products recently. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend admit that the person paying for codeine-containing products at the checkout would not get the same advice in a supermarket containing a pharmacy as they would in the sort of small pharmacy that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) described?
I certainly agree that local pharmacies are enormously important. That is why we want to support them, and that is why we have introduced the Health Bill, which the House debated yesterday and which provides for pharmaceutical needs assessments for each area. We must ensure that there is diversity of supply so that precisely the sort of needs identified by my hon. Friend are met, and we must recognise that other parts of our community want that diversity as well.
Along with many others, we value the role of community pharmacists, but recognise that the most important challenge for small and single-handed pharmacies is presented by the Medicines (Pharmacies) (Responsible Pharmacist) Regulations 2008, which came into force last week. Can the Minister deal with the significant confusion and real concern among pharmacists regarding the regulations? Will he, for instance, clarify whether a small pharmacy that is open for the minimum 40 hours per week would be in breach of its NHS terms of service were a responsible pharmacist to be absent for two hours, and whether a responsible pharmacist failing to sign off and taken a rest break would be in breach both of professional requirements and of the European working time directive?
We certainly do not want a local pharmacist to be in breach of either the regulations or the working time directive. We want and intend to ensure that the regulations are applied flexibly so that we can continue to provide effective and good local services in the community.