Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Regulated Professions (Health and Social Care) (Amendment) Bill 2019: Committee Stage
-----who is a registered pharmaceutical assistant, although she is now retired. There has been as much lobbying on this in my family as anywhere else and I am very aware of how long this has been a live issue which is of real concern to so many registered pharmaceutical assistants, of whom there is now only a contained grouping. The Minister is well are of this.
Amendment No. 9 would insert a new provision relating to registered pharmaceutical assistants into section 53. Pharmaceutical assistants have a long history and tradition. They are professionals who carried out a course which has been discontinued. The course ceased in 1982, although the profession of pharmaceutical assistant was originally regulated under the 1890 Pharmacy Act. No new pharmaceutical assistants have qualified in the State since 1986. The Registered Pharmaceutical Assistants' Association has written to Members about this issue and so they will be aware of it. There is no current pathway for qualification to this historic qualification. However, the Pharmacy Act 2007 recognises registered pharmaceutical assistants, and section 2 defines a pharmaceutical assistant as a person who is competent under the prior 1890 Act to "transact the business of a pharmacist in his or her temporary absence". Section 30 of the 2007 Act also provides for the saving for temporary cover by a registered pharmaceutical assistant and section 13(1) enables the council to set up the register of registered pharmaceutical assistants. I lay that out to illustrate for colleagues the long history and existing statutory framework for the regulation of registered pharmaceutical assistants.
Over the many decades during which this qualification existed, pharmaceutical assistants have carried out enormously important and valuable work and made a huge contribution to the work of pharmacists, many of whose pharmacies could not continue in business without the cover provided by pharmaceutical assistants. I speak from personal experience of seeing my mother working in this role. There has never been a statutory definition of "temporary absence", although section 30 of the 2007 Act provides for it and gives it a statutory basis. However, it has been interpreted relatively widely over many years and there have been various codes and ongoing negotiations with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, PSI, on how to regulate it. As the Minister and colleagues are well aware, in recent years the PSI has sought to curtail the practice of pharmaceutical assistants. Proposed rules, which have not been signed by the Minister, would reduce the level of cover pharmaceutical assistants could provide, reduce the interpretation of "temporary absence" to one hour per day and limit what a pharmaceutical assistant could do, if enacted. This would have huge implications for the pharmaceutical assistants - mostly women - who qualified under this historic four-year apprenticeship, training and education pathway. They are now a contained group of about 305 persons, although there are many like my mother who are retired. We think that about 97% of people who hold this qualification are women. If passed, those rules would have a catastrophic effect on the livelihoods and earning capacities of these women as well as having a devastating effect on the many pharmacies which have relied on the cover provided by pharmaceutical assistants for so long. That is the background on why this amendment has been put forward by the Registered Pharmaceutical Assistants' Association, with the huge support of colleagues across the House.
The amendment would delete section 53 and insert a new provision into section 7 of the 2007 Act. The amendment is twofold. First, it would include pharmaceutical assistants in section 7 of the 2007 Act. That section provides for the functions of the society, which are currently to regulate the profession of pharmacy, to which the amendment would add "and pharmaceutical assistants". Second, subsection (b) of the new section 53 would substitute a new paragraph enabling supervision of compliance with the Act by pharmacists, pharmaceutical assistants and pharmacy owners in their respective capacities. It would lay out and clarify the position of pharmaceutical assistants, thereby addressing the purported reason given by the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland as to why it appears to be seeking to curtail the work of pharmaceutical assistants. The amendment seeks to address the concerns expressed by the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, although it has never put forward an evidential basis for why it is seeking to curtail the level of temporary cover pharmaceutical assistants can provide.
I will not speak any further on this amendment, as I am aware and very grateful that the Minister has indicated the Government will not be opposing it. I look forward to working with him and other colleagues between now and Report Stage to see if further work can be done to strengthen the amendment. I acknowledge that the Minister is appreciative of the position of pharmaceutical assistants but this is effectively a legacy issue and we need to ensure a legal mechanism and statutory framework are in place in order that pharmaceutical assistants can continue to do their important work and provide an important service to pharmacists and members of the public, and to ensure their own livelihoods are protected as well. I am grateful to the Minister and my colleagues for their support. I am particularly grateful to the Registered Pharmaceutical Assistants' Association and Ms Anita Finucane, who drafted the amendment, for all the work they have put in to ensure this amendment received such support. It was done on very short notice because we did not think the Bill would come to us on Committee Stage until the new year.