Pharmacy regulator considers giving up legal authority to conduct covert investigations of pharmacists

The General Pharmaceutical Council has not used its covert surveillance powers since being granted them in 2018.
General Pharmaceutical Council sign

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) is considering relinquishing covert surveillance powers that it previously campaigned for but has never used.

The regulator was given powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which allows the use of covert surveillance, such as audio and video recordings, in November 2018, having sought the ability to use the powers since at least 2013.

The regulator had previously said in March 2016 that it was seeking powers to perform “directed surveillance” but added at the time that it “does not currently have the legal powers” to authorise its use.

However, following the implementation of the Investigatory Powers (Codes of Practice and Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2018 on 15 August 2018, the regulator was given the required powers to conduct covert investigations using directed surveillance.

Papers prepared for the GPhC council’s meeting on 18 April 2024 show that at the body’s Audit and Risk Committee meeting, held in December 2023, the committee discussed whether to relinquish these powers.

The papers say that the GPhC holds RIPA powers, which is unique among regulators.

“This allowed the use of covert surveillance, such as audio and video recordings, and while it had never been used, the organisation was required to have appropriate policies in place and submit these for inspections,” the papers said.

“In January 2024, work would commence to assess whether there were cases in which the RIPA powers should be used. If not, a determination would be made on whether it was appropriate to retain the powers if they were unlikely to ever be used.

“When investigations were undertaken collaboratively with the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] and the police, those bodies may be utilising their wider powers, negating the need for the GPhC to do so.”

The Audit and Risk Committee suggested that the use of RIPA by the GPhC be brought to a future council workshop to discuss issues, such as the ethical implications of having and using the powers, the possible use of RIPA in online pharmacy investigations, and whether the powers should be retained “to deal with future scenarios as yet unknown”.

Commenting on the suggestion, Paul Day, director of membership and communities at the Pharmacists’ Defence Association, said: “Everything the GPhC does is funded by registrant fees, so we welcome them removing unnecessary activity from their work plan, such as administering powers which they never use.”

In February 2024, the GPhC said it may consider the use of “mystery shoppers” to inspect online pharmacies. This proposal followed the publication of an investigation into online pharmacies by the BBC on 5 January 2024, which reported that it had been able to buy prescription-only medicines from 20 online pharmacies without checks.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, April 2024, Vol 312, No 7984;312(7984)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2024.1.309425

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