- The Government is to go ahead with a clampdown on advertising by drug companies despite strong opposition from the ad industry.
New curbs proposed by the Medicines Control Agency (MCA) could take effect as early as 5 April. The Advertising Association, which believed the threat of statutory rules had receded, is furious and accused the agency of failing to honour its pledge to consult the industry.
This week the Tory Opposition launched a last-ditch attempt to block the move when William Hague tabled a Commons motion against the regulations. He hopes this will force a Parliamentary debate and that the Government will then think again.
The MCA, which has revived proposals it first mooted in 1997, argues that the changes are needed because of "routine misinterpretation" of the existing rules by drug firms. Under the proposals, the agency would have the power to suspend or ban ads, and anyone breaching such an order would face a fine of up to £5,000 or two years in prison.
The AA attacked the proposals as "draconian, unjustified, unconstitutional and of dubious legality." Its leaders claimed the MCA had postponed three meetings at which the curbs were due to be discussed.
"They are an unwarranted extension of the MCA's powers, especially when we bear in mind that it has not used the considerable powers it already has in over 15 years," said an AA spokesperson.
The association warned that the MCA would be acting as "judge, jury and prosecutor" because it would have the power to approve an ad and then consider a complaint about it. There would be no mechanism to avoid inconsistency between the agency and other regulatory bodies, such as the Advertising Standards Authority.
The AA has received legal advice that the proposals could be successfully challenged under the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European convention into British law.
Welcoming the Tory move, the AA said: "The MCA must be called to justify these proposals and explain how they will be amended to ensure that the rights of natural justice are not undermined. If they cannot, then the regulations must not be passed."