Last year, prescription and dental fraud cost the NHS an estimated £212 million. It is absolutely right that the Government take steps to recoup that money, so it can be reinvested into caring for patients. Our system for claiming free prescriptions should be simple for people and clinicians to understand, which is why we are currently piloting technology that allows pharmacies to check digitally whether a patient is exempt from charges before prescription items are dispensed.
I appreciate the Minister’s response, but I am afraid that that is just not the reality out there. One of my constituents—a woman with severe learning disabilities and anxiety, who is entitled to free prescriptions through her employment and support allowance claim—was hit with a £100 penalty charge when the NHS failed to obtain the correct information from the Department for Work and Pensions. My office challenged that decision and got the £100 back to her, but the situation was extremely distressing, and the communication is clearly at fault and punitive. Will the Minister implement a review into the prescription penalties to protect vulnerable people?
It is distressing to hear of such a case, and these situations are very distressing for patients and their carers. The NHS Business Services Authority has taken steps to make things clearer, including with an easy-read patient information booklet and an online eligibility checker. We are also running a national awareness campaign, but of course we do need to ensure that people are not claiming for things to which they are not entitled.
I do not agree with my right hon. Friend that the system is rubbish. If somebody does receive a penalty charge notice incorrectly, there are procedures in place to challenge that notice. If somebody thinks they have received a penalty charge that they should not have received, they should contact the NHS Business Services Authority.
What is not rubbish is the very pithy line of questioning typically deployed by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). I will call the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) if his question consists of a sentence, rather than a speech.
Access to prescriptions is made much harder given the closure of 233 community pharmacies in the last two years, so will the Minister introduce an essential community pharmacies scheme to support rural pharmacies such as those in Cumbria and keep them open?
Since 2014, 5.6 million penalty charge notices have been issued, including a staggering 1.7 million to people who are entitled to free prescriptions. FP10 prescription forms and the criteria for eligibility for free prescriptions are far from straightforward. Some people in receipt of universal credit are eligible for free prescriptions and some are not—and, by the way, universal credit is not mentioned at all on the form. Those claiming exemption on grounds of low income can see their eligibility change from one month to the next. Is it any wonder that some patients tick their box? What steps are the Government taking to sort out this chaotic system that is too often treating vulnerable people like criminals?
A wide range of activity has been undertaken to help people to understand whether they need to pay for their NHS prescriptions, and I remind the House that 84% of NHS prescriptions are available for free. My Department and the DWP are working together to provide further clarity to universal credit, and hopefully we will be adding a universal credit tick box to the prescription form.