Bill seeks to remove 'wall of secrecy' over safety of drugs

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PATIENTS and doctors would, for the first time, have the right to know how safe and effective medicines are under a Private Member's Bill launched yesterday.

Giles Radice, Labour MP for Durham North, who is sponsoring the Medicines Information Bill, said it was designed to end the 'unacceptable secrecy' which surrounded medicines in Britain.

A clause in the Medicines Act 1968 makes it a criminal offence for officials to disclose information about the safety of medicines which is given to the licensing authorities by pharmaceutical manufacturers.

It also prevents the Medicines Control Agency from saying why it has licensed a particular drug, or why it has withdrawn a licence. For example, Halcion (triazolam), a sleeping pill used by thousands of people, was withdrawn in October last year. Details on the reasons for withdrawal were largely supplied by leaked documents, and information from the United States Food and Drug Administration.

More than 100 medicines have had their licences withdrawn or suspended since 1979. Ministers are not even allowed to release information about imported counterfeit medicines.

The clause also prevents the release of information about veterinary medicines used to treat animals bred for human consumption. Drug residues may accumulate in the animal carcases. Mr Radice said: 'Everybody, including MPs, finds themselves up against a wall of secrecy in their attempts to get information. Yet all potent drugs have side-effects.

'Consumers must have the right to know what the risks are, so they can balance the risk against the benefit . . . the United Kingdom's licensing system for medicines and veterinary treatments is widely regarded as one of the most stringent in the world - so why not allow public scrutiny of the basis of their decisions?'