This matter relates to the registration fee being imposed on the pharmaceutical sector. Three elements in the new regulation cause concern. The first is the extraordinarily high level at which the fee is being set. The second is the bureaucracy and duplication involved, which is wasteful, especially in the registration process itself. The third is the concern about what the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland intends to do with its enormously increased revenues.
The whole system of registration of pharmacies is a new development that was provided for in the Pharmacy Act 2007 that we passed last year. The case made for it was that the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland needed to be able to hold pharmacy owners who are not pharmacists, principally the groups of pharmacies owned by large companies, accountable to it. That was reasonable. However, both the PSNI, the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and the RPSGB, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, have been maintaining a register of pharmacy premises for a number of years. I wish to draw some comparisons between them to show how absurdly high and penal is the registration fee.
The fee of €2,500 is excessive and it has not been justified by any demonstrated need to expend this kind of money. It is 15 times the fee charged in Northern Ireland. I wonder sometimes when I see all this stuff about uniting Ireland, yet we magnify the gaps between the two parts of the island in every possible way. I found it ironic during the week that some republican source called for a boycott of Newry. That says a lot for the Thirty-two County republic.
The fee in Britain is three times less at £162 sterling. Let us compare that with €2,500. There is no transparency in how the fee was set. The fee was recommended to the Minister for Health and Children by the council of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, which now has a majority of lay members, all appointed by the Minister. It was inevitable that the Minister would accept the recommendation even though the amount indicated in a submission by the Irish Pharmaceutical Union, which represents the majority of pharmacy owners in the State, was €500 or one fifth of the amount. It is extraordinary that the fee suggested by the professional body representing pharmacists was multiplied by five and the Minister got advice from her own plants to say that is what was necessary. That is just extraordinary behaviour.
We have moved away from professional self-regulation of the pharmacy sector but we seem to have no clear idea of how to replace it, what to replace it with, or how it should be funded. One can ask whether it is appropriate that the new regulator for pharmacies should be funded by those it regulates. Again, it is a question of principle. I raised the issue in regard to the Press Council of Ireland where the newspapers, who are the interested party, pay the fees. As far as I am concerned that corrupts the process. We have a large sum of money but we have no indication of how it will be spent or for what uses it will be appropriated. However, it has been reported that it is to appoint 12 new inspectors to monitor the 1,600 pharmacies in the State so that there will be a ratio of one inspector to every 135 pharmacies. Is this comparable with what happens in neighbouring jurisdictions? The relevant British institution employs 26 inspectors for its 13,000 pharmacies, which is a ratio of 1:500. There is duplication and waste in this country. The HSE is already responsible for ensuring the suitability of pharmacy premises and staff in all 1,600 pharmacies with medical card contracts. Therefore, the expenditure of the money in question is not necessary.
The provision of pharmacy services to the public is covered by the Health Information and Quality Authority. It is a very responsible body and I am extremely impressed by it. It was the authority that produced an audit on the cost efficiency of addressing the issue of human papillomavirus. Tragically, the Minister for Health and Children ignored its advice. This was another missed opportunity.
The bureaucracy is extraordinary. Thank God I do not have to experience this hell. For somebody who hates forms — a fairly human characteristic — to be asked to fill a 25-page form complete with maps, plans of the buildings, solicitors' letters, affidavits and the whole works during the busiest three weeks of the pharmaceutical year is appalling. Evidence of insurance and sworn certificates signed by solicitors are also required, which is dreadful.
Another correspondent of mine stated, "I will have been practising pharmacy for 20 years next year and I have never had a complaint about my professional behaviour." He states from the heart, "I do not need to pay some blood-sucking, jobs-for-the-boys quango €2,500 to regulate and inspect me into alcoholism or an early grave." I understand from where that fellow is coming. How much more unemployment do we want to create? This is a very severe burden given that there are already cutbacks.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland has introduced a fee of €1,500, to be paid by pharmacy graduates for the privilege of completing their pre-registration vocational training. There have been endless problems with this and I raised it a while ago. As a result of a blockage in negotiations, a full annual intake of final-year pharmacy students was to be blocked.
Why is the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, a statutory body with some degree of accountability to the Oireachtas, benefiting from a 200% increase in its fee income in an extraordinarily straitened time economically for pharmacists and everybody else? The society currently has an annual fee income of approximately €2 million from pharmacists' membership fees, while the fee of €2,500 per pharmacy will generate an additional €4 million. Why? For what will the money be used and how can it be justified in these difficult times?