Campaigners for free birth control will urge Labour MPs in the New Year to fight a proposal to impose prescription charges on contraceptives for most women.
Health ministers are considering ending the free prescription of contraceptives for better-off women as part of a fundamental review of NHS charges. It is one of the "tough choices" which Tony Blair has said is facing the welfare state.
The Birth Control Trust is preparing a briefing note for MPs in the hope of forcing the Government to abandon the plan in the wake of the rebellion by more than 50 Labour MPs over cuts in one-parent benefits.
Some senior members of the British Medical Association support the introduction of charges for some women, because it believes it could help the Government reduce the overall cost of prescriptions. Charging for the Pill could save the NHS about pounds 50m a year.
The Independent has learned that ministers have ruled out imposing new NHS charges for visiting the family doctor and for "hotel" accommodation in hospitals, such as food and rooms, although Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, has encountered criticism for being unable to make a public announcement before the review is completed in the spring. "A Labour Government was never going to introduce such charges," said a ministerial source.
Ministers are pressing ahead, however, with attempts to cut the pounds 4bn drugs bill with radical changes to the exemptions for prescription charges. The "passporting" of exemptions, allowing sufferers of one disease to qualify for free prescriptions for any other ailments are likely to end. Some well-off elderly patients could also face charges for the first time.
Prescription charges could be imposed on contraceptives as part of a general move to end widespread exemptions from the charge - raised 15p by the Tories in November last year to pounds 5.65 per item. The Government may soften the impact by announcing a freeze or a cut in the charge from next April.
Britain has one of the highest rates in Europe for unwanted pregnancies among teenage girls. Imposing charges on the Pill would run counter to the one of successive governments' key "health of the nation" targets for reducing teenage pregnancies.
Teenagers and women on Income Support, therefore, are likely to continue to get their contraceptives prescribed free of charge, but most other women will have to pay, unless the Government abandons the idea.
A cross-party group of 47 MPs, led by Labour MPs Martyn Jones and John Austin, have already laid down a Commons motion warning that a charge might discourage women from using contraception and urging the Government to reject the idea on principle.
Ann Furedi, director of Birth Control Trust, said: "A charge for the Pill would be a tax on fertility. We are opposed to the introduction of any charges for contraception. It is vital that nothing is done to make the use of contraception more difficult."
It is estimated that one in four sexually active women uses the Pill. The Pharmaceutical Contraceptive Group (PCG), which represents manufacturers of the Pill is also in favour of a charge for contraceptives. It said Britain was the only country in the world which provided the Pill free of charge. In the rest of Europe women pay up to pounds 5 for a year's supply. In the US it costs an average of pounds 130.Reuse content