Philip Dunne leads a debate on the House of Lords amendments to the Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill

15th March 2017

Philip Dunne leads a debate on the House of Lords amendments to the Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill to control the cost of health service medicines and other medical supplies.

I remind the House of the importance of this Bill. NHS spending on medicines is second only to staffing costs. The NHS in England spent more than £15 billion on medicines during 2015-16, a rise of nearly 20% since 2010-11. With advances in science and our ageing population, the costs will only continue to grow.

The UK has a lot to be proud of: we have a world-class science base and an excellent reputation for the quality and rigour of our clinical trials and the data they produce. The UK has one of the strongest life sciences industries in the world, generating turnover of more than £60 billion each year. Indeed, it is our most productive industry. The Government are deeply committed to supporting it to flourish and, in doing so, to provide jobs and transform the health of the nation.

In the 2016 autumn statement, an additional £4 billion of investment in research and development was announced, specifically targeted at industry-academia collaboration. We expect the life sciences industry to be a substantial beneficiary. That comes on top of measures such as the patent box and the R and D tax credits that the Government have introduced to encourage investment from innovative businesses.

That determined action is reaping rewards. The UK ranks top among the major European economies for foreign direct investment projects in life sciences. Last month, the Danish drugs company Novo Nordisk announced a new £115 million investment in a science research centre in Oxford. That comes on top of an additional investment of £275 million announced by GSK last June and AstraZeneca reaffirming its commitment to a £390 million investment to establish headquarters and a research centre in Cambridge—it is good to see the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) in his place. Looking ahead, Professor Sir John Bell, the regius professor of medicine at Oxford, has agreed to lead the development of a new life sciences strategy for the long-term success of UK.

At the same time, it is important that we secure better value for money for the NHS from its growing spend on medicines and other medical supplies. I remind the House that, overall, the Bill will do three things. First, it will enable us broadly to align our statutory scheme for the control of prices of branded medicines with our voluntary scheme, by introducing the possibility of a payment percentage for the statutory scheme. That could deliver £90 million of savings annually for the NHS. Secondly, the Bill will give us stronger powers to set the prices of unbranded generic medicines if companies charge unwarranted prices in the absence of competition.

Thirdly, the Bill will give us stronger powers to require companies in the supply chain for medicines, medical supplies and other related products to provide us with information. We will use that information to operate our pricing schemes, to reimburse community pharmacies for the products they dispense and to assure ourselves that the supply chain of specific products provides value for money for the NHS and the taxpayer.

During the Bill’s passage through the other place, the Government tabled 23 amendments, following debate and discussion in this House and with peers. I firmly believe that those amendments make it a better Bill. However, I will start with Lords amendment 3 and set out the reasons why it does not improve the Bill.

Lords amendment 3 would introduce a duty on the Government, in exercising their functions to control costs, to have “full regard” to the need to

“promote and support a growing life sciences sector”

and the need to ensure that patients have access to new medicines. The amendment would undermine one of the core purposes of the Bill by hindering the ability of the Government to put effective cost controls in place. Controlling the prices of medicines cannot, in itself, promote the interests of the life sciences sector and deliver growth. Having such a requirement in legislation could encourage companies to bring legal challenges where the cost controls have not, in themselves, promoted growth in the life sciences industry. That could significantly hinder the Government’s ability to exercise their powers to control costs effectively.

For example, if the Government were to take action to control the price of an unbranded generic medicine, because it was clear that the company was exploiting the NHS—several examples of that have been raised throughout the Bill’s passage through this House—it could be argued that that action did not promote the life sciences sector, because every generic drugs manufacturer could argue that it is a life sciences company. Nevertheless, that would, of course, be the right thing to do for the NHS, for patients and for taxpayers. Lords amendment 3 would enable companies to challenge any action by the Government to control costs by arguing that proper regard had not been given to supporting a growing life sciences industry. The amendment would therefore make it more difficult to control costs, including where companies seek to exploit the NHS over and above the interests of patients, clinicians and taxpayers.

I say gently to those on the Labour Benches that it is ironic that they talk tough on the pharma companies, which they claim in other forums routinely seek to exploit the NHS, when today they are arguing the cause of the industry by supporting an amendment that would provide it with a legal stick with which to challenge the NHS when it seeks to control the costs of drugs, some of which, as they acknowledge, are exorbitantly priced. I therefore have to ask the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders): whose side is Labour on?

The Government are seriously concerned that Lords amendment 3 has the potential to impact negatively on our ability to control costs. I do not expect that that was the aim of well-intentioned Members in the other place. I hope both Houses agree that it would be damaging to the NHS if, on every occasion that the Government deem it necessary to use their powers to control costs, the Government could be challenged for failing to give full regard to promoting the interests of life sciences companies.

The second part of Lords amendment 3 requires the Secretary of State to have full regard to the need for NHS patients to benefit from swift access to innovative medicines that have been recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence through its technology appraisals. However, NHS commissioners are already legally required to fund drugs and other treatments recommended in NICE technology appraisal guidance, normally within three months of final guidance. The Secretary of State’s power to control costs is a completely separate process. Therefore, this part of the amendment would not achieve anything.

 

The Minister is of course absolutely right on the primacy of NICE in this matter, but today the NICE board will be imposing a budget threshold of £20 million a year, which would have the effect of at least delaying or possibly preventing the roll-out of new medicines. Does he share my concerns, particularly in relation to cancer drugs?

 

My hon. Friend is right to point out that NICE is considering today in its board meeting thresholds for the introduction of new medicines. What I would not do, however, is share his concern that it will necessarily lead to delay in their take-up. In essence, it will provide NHS England with greater commercial flexibility to negotiate with drugs companies that propose to introduce a drug that may cost more than £20 million in a full year. It will give NHS England more time to negotiate a lower price with the pharma company. That should not, in and of itself, lead to either delay or less take-up.

I am aware of the concerns, expressed by my hon. Friend, other Members and some charities in a national newspaper today, about the joint NICE and NHS England consultation on the proposed changes to the appraisal and adoption of new technologies. There have been suggestions by Opposition Members that this is rationing of NICE-approved medicines. I assure the House that that is not the case. Patients will continue to have the right to NICE-recommended drugs, as enshrined in the NHS constitution. The proposals are intended to ensure that patients benefit from even faster access to the most cost-effective treatments, while addressing issues of affordability as well as effectiveness.

Let me be very clear: Lords amendment 3 would not impact on the proposals; the NHS will continue to fund a product approved by NICE, in line with NICE recommendations. I also remind Members that NICE and NHS England are making the changes to address concerns about the affordability of high-cost new drugs and other technologies that were raised by the Public Accounts Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier).

I have read the suggestion by the Opposition that the NICE and NHS England proposals would be contrary to our intent to increase the uptake of new medicines. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), that is false. In reality, last year saw spend on medicines grow more quickly than in any of the past 10 years, as we seek to secure rapid access to new medicines for patients.

Access to medicines is primarily dependent on clinicians’ choices about what is best for their patients. Clinicians need to be aware of new medicines and persuaded that they may be a better option for their individual patients, taking into account other conditions each patient may have and other medicines they are taking. We need to change the culture and behaviour of those clinicians who may be reluctant to use innovative medicines, and legislation is not the right way to effect behaviour change in the NHS.

 

I want to ask a layman’s question: if NICE approves a drug, is the NHS necessarily required to buy it?

 

The short answer is yes, it is. That is set out in the NHS constitution. The measures considered by the NICE board today provide some additional flexibility for NHS England in its handling of negotiations with the drugs companies over the introduction of new technology.

Let me conclude on amendment 3 by saying that the Government strongly believe that it would have a negative impact on the Government’s ability to operate price controls, so I ask Members to disagree with it.

I will deal briefly with the other amendments. Lords amendments 1 and 2 and amendments 4 to 24 were made in the other place. They are all amendments that the Government brought forward, having worked constructively with parliamentarians on improving the Bill.

Amendments 1 and 2 relate to the remuneration for persons providing pharmaceutical services in England and Wales respectively. The amendments provide for new regulation-making powers in respect of special medicinal products. These are unlicensed medicines that can be manufactured or imported to meet a patient’s individual needs when no licensed product is available.

The unique nature of specials—the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned them during our consideration in this place—and their manufacturing arrangements mean that we need to do more to ensure that the prices paid by the NHS represent value for money for all these products. These amendments would enable England and Wales to develop options that will secure improved value for money—for example, by using a quotes system that has been trialled in Scotland, but there are also other options. We will consult the community pharmacy representative body on how best to take this forward.

Amendments 4 to 7 introduce a consultation requirement on the Government with regards to medical supplies. Again, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire helpfully pointed out that such a requirement was in place for medicines, but not for medical supplies. I thank her for engaging with me and my officials, which has helped to improve the Bill.

The Government have listened to concerns in the House of Lords and in this House about the Government’s power to control the prices of medical supplies. These amendments would ensure that the first order to control the price of any medical supply would be subject to the affirmative procedure, giving both Houses an opportunity to discuss that order.

Amendments 8 and 9 and 15 to 17 are amendments to the information powers in the Bill. Responding to concerns from industry about the potential burdens of the proposed information power, they introduce an additional hurdle for the Government to obtain information by requiring them to issue an information notice whenever they require companies to provide cost information related to individual products, which can be appealed by the company concerned.

 

One problem in coming to a fair price for a new drug—we want to reward the company for its innovation, but without being ripped off—is knowing what kind of production run or demand there might be for it. Is there any way that the NHS could get better at forecasting what its volume might be, as that might drive the price down?

 

As ever, my right hon. Friend, who is a champion of market solutions to some of these tricky problems, lights on an important point. We need to be better at trying to predict the take-up of medicines. Of course, until a new medicine has been introduced, it is very difficult to assess that, because it requires clinicians to get behind the product and to choose to prescribe it. He is absolutely right that we need to look at the way in which we model in order to have a negotiation with the pharmaceutical company that ensures that we build in as good a volume as we are expecting to maximise our prospects of getting the best price.

Let me return to Lords amendments 8, 9 and 15 to 17. When the Government ask a company to provide straightforward information about prices and other transaction costs or overall costs, there is no need for an information notice. The rationale is that there could be a significant burden on companies to provide product-level cost information. Any such request should be made only in exceptional circumstances—for example, in order to set the price of an unbranded generic medicine, when the Government would need insight into the costs and profits associated with the specific product.

Lords amendments 10 to 14 were intended to reflect the report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place, which considered that the power to prescribe in regulations that any person other than the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers could disclose information was too wide. Lords amendments 10, 13 and 14 specify health service bodies and NHS foundation trusts. In respect of other amendments made to the NHS (Wales) Act 2006, the Committee thought that the penalties that Welsh Ministers could impose for non-compliance should be included in the Bill and not left to regulations, and that is what amendments 11 and 12 would achieve.

Lords amendments 18, 19 and 20 are consequential amendments relating to the extent of the Bill. Lords amendments 21 to 24 are partly consequential, and partly provide for flexibility to allow the provisions to come into force in Northern Ireland at a later stage if necessary. Unfortunately, as Members will know, the Northern Ireland Assembly was unable to pass a legislative consent motion on the Bill before it was dissolved.

I believe that those Government amendments, built on engagement with Members of both Houses and with industry, will help to improve the Bill further.

 

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