By Conor McGinn
By 2011, England will be the only part of the UK to still have prescription charges following the decisions of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to abolish the fees.
There is a clear and convincing argument for Westminster to follow their leads, and a committment to introducing free prescriptions in England should be one of the key promises in Labour’s next manifesto. The Government has already gone some of the way towards this in announcing that the charges will be scrapped for cancer patients from later this year, and the Department of Health is currently undertaking a consultation on other long term conditions that should qualify for exemption. The plan is that free prescriptions for people suffering from these illnesses will be introduced over the next three years, which will make a huge difference to the lives of many people across England.
But why not go further? According to the Department of Health, 88% of prescription items are dispensed free of charge. This figure will increase with the extension of free prescriptions to those receiving medication for terminal illnesses. That will mean that administration costs in processing prescription charges will increase vis-à-vis the revenue obtained from the fees, which currently stands at £435m but will reduce by £300m over time, as the cost exemption is extended to long term conditions.
In 2002, the Government-commissioned Wanless Report condemned the system of exemptions as “illogical”. It found that the current criteria for exemptions take no account of ability to pay. Many wealthy pensioners, for example, are exempt from paying prescription charges, but many poor families not. Labour should take the initiative to redress the imbalance, and introduce what would prove a popular and cost-effective policy, and one which embodies our values of fairness and social justice.