In his speech to Labour’s conference in September, Gordon Brown announced that:
- From next April 1st cancer patients will not have to pay for prescription charges;
- Over “the next few years” savings from the NHS drugs budget will be ploughed back into free prescriptions for people with “long term conditions”.
The first is a welcome step in relation to what has long been a national scandal, though it should not be forgotten that it has taken Brown 11 years to do it, and not without the pressure of a political and economic crisis.
The second of these promises appears conditional on the level of savings. In addition it is not clear that all people with “long term conditions” will be exempted. The government is carrying out a review led by the President of the Royal College of Physicians which will report back “next summer”. According to a letter from Dawn Primarolo, Minister of State in the Department of Health:
“This review will seek the views of the public, clinicians and patient representative bodies and will consider how to define the range of long term conditions which should be exempted from prescription charges and how exemption from prescription charges can best be phased in.”
(Letter to Michael Wills MP in relation to Swindon TUC’s call for the abolition of prescription charges in all of the UK)
This is what Primarolo deems to be “a fairer system of prescription charges”.
The cost of exemption of cancer patients will not break the government’s bank (no pun intended). It will cost around £20 million per year. It should be borne in mind that the government is estimated to receive only £430 million this year from prescription charges. Compared to the amount of money that they have stumped up for banks that are in crisis because of their own reckless lending, such a figure is peanuts.
According to the government’s own figures 88% of patients in England get prescription charges free. We don’t know how many will be left once cancer patients and at least some people with chronic sickness are added to the list, but it will almost certainly be less than 10% and possibly even 5%. It simply does not make sense for the government to insist on imposing financial difficulties, even on a small number of people, when charges are already abolished (as in Wales) or being phased out (as in Scotland, and now Northern Ireland). Why impose a means test on a shrinking number of people who will rightly consider the government’s doctrinaire intransigence to be unjust?
Swindon TUC believes that this injustice needs to be righted by the government. The fact that they have made some concessions under pressure underlines the need for the campaign for complete abolition of charges in all of the UK to be continued. To that end we would ask that you:
- Write to the Department of Health calling for abolition (we will give you the details of who to write to when these are available);
- Write to your MP pressing them to support abolition, underlining the illogical continuation of charges for a shrinking number of people, or ask to meet them to discuss the issue face to face;
- Continue collecting petition signatures;
- Trade Union members should put forward a resolution to next year’s union conference, committing their union to press for abolition (we will be sending out a model resolution which you can use if you wish).
You will probably have heard that the government has decided to abandon taking the Post Office Card Accounts for old age pensioners away from Royal Mail, as a result of the public outcry. This underlines that public pressure and pressure on MP’s, sufficiently mobilised, can achieve results. We should not let the fact that only a small minority of people will have to pay prescription charges stop us from pressing for complete abolition and an end to this injustice.
Secretary, Swindon TUC