The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) was wrong to publish the identities of pharmacists suspended on the back of the BBC Inside Out investigation and should have detected the illegal medicine sales before the media, pharmacy lawyer Noel Wardle has claimed.
Mr Wardle, a partner at law firm Charles Russell, criticised the GPhC for failing to uncover the alleged dealings before the BBC exposé in December, which claimed nine west London pharmacies were selling prescription-only medicines, including diazepam, without prescriptions.
Details of the six pharmacists suspended because of the investigation should have remained private until the allegations were proven, Mr Wardle argued at the Charles Russell conference yesterday (April 30).
The GPhC defended its regulation of the profession and said it made interim orders public because they were automatically published on its register
More on the BBC exposé
The GPhC defended its regulation of the profession and said its policy was to make interim orders public because they were automatically published on its register, which is publicly available.
But Mr Wardle argued that the regulator had handled the exposé badly. He stressed that the GPhC would not have tested the evidence or called witnesses when the interim suspensions were made against the pharmacists.
This made it unfair to reveal the details to the press before the final hearing, Mr Wardle argued. "In our opinion, it just isn't right and shouldn't have happened," he told the conference.
Mr Wardle also attacked the GPhC for failing to adequately detect illegal medicines sales. If the GPhC did its job properly, the media wouldn't be able to run exposés on the profession, he claimed.
At the time of the BBC documentary in December, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham criticised pharmacy regulation for failing to be "tough enough" and the BBC highlighted that the GPhC did not conduct secret shopper tests without prior suspicion of misconduct.
In February, the GPhC told C+D it was pressing for covert surveillance powers that would enable it to conduct more undercover investigations.
But Mr Wardle refuted the GPhC's claims this week. "The suggestion was that the council couldn't have done what BBC Inside Out did because it didn't have the powers and, in our view, that's wrong," Mr Wardle told delegates. "The council has a long history of making test purchases by inspectors so... it already has the power to do it," he explained.
The GPhC told C+D it only had powers to make "overt" test purchases of medicines, which must be made by inspectors. Inspectors must reveal their identities if asked and the GPhC is unable to use mystery shoppers from the local community for the investigation.
The Office of Surveillance Commissioners has said it would support the GPhC's attempts to conduct covert surveillance because the regulator was in a "unique and curious position". It acknowledged that the former Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain had more powers to conduct surveillance and agreed that investigations such as the BBC's would be difficult for the GPhC to conduct without powers to recruit undercover investigators.
But it stressed that covert surveillance should only be used as a last resort, when it was necessary for regulation.
What do you make of the GPhC's conduct throught the BBC POMs scandal?