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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): I have received no indication--[Interruption.] Order. The right hon. Gentleman asked me to reply to the point of order.

8 Dec 1999 : Column 959

The Chair replies to points of order--no one else does. I have received no indication from the Government that there is to be any statement.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett) rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Does the right hon. Lady want to make a point of order?

Mrs. Beckett: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My understanding, which can only be imperfect at present, is that there appears--[Interruption.] I do not need any interventions. It appears that the French Government may have made a statement. The British Government have no change of policy to announce. Obviously, if the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) wants a statement from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, we shall consider that request and discuss it through the usual channels. My understanding of the situation at present is that the British Government's position is unchanged; there is thus no change of policy to announce to the House.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Chair has no power in these matters. The point of order was a question as to whether there would be a Government statement. We have heard from the Leader of the House that there will not be a statement tonight, so I am obliged to continue the business of the House.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the Leader of the House is in the Chamber, will she give us an assurance that tomorrow's business can be adjusted, so that we can take this serious matter into account? Tomorrow, there will be debates in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall; they are neither time sensitive nor urgent. Will the Leader of the House give us an undertaking that she will try to change tomorrow's business?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat Whip and has access to the usual channels. These matters are for the usual channels--not for the Chair.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind hon. Members that I have explained my view on these matters.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the guardian of the rights of Back Benchers, will you express the general principle that it is quite disgraceful that the Minister of Agriculture should be parading around on "Newsnight", commenting on a matter that vitally affects one of our great industries,

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which is in grave difficulty, instead of coming to this House to announce that there has been a major setback for the Government? The House needs to be told about that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The answer is no. I have been here in this Chamber looking after the rules of the House of Commons.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has said, you are the custodian of the rights of this House, and I ask you a direct question under a point of order. Is it right that a Minister of Agriculture should go to the media to deal with a matter that should be announced in this House and is critical to many constituencies?

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall not take any more points of order on this matter. The fact is that the rules of the House require me to call the next motion.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am taking the motion before us. I am looking after the rules of the House. I have explained my position.


Motion made, and Question put,

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made, and Question put,

Hon. Members: Object.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I call the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh) to present a petition.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus) rose--

Mr. Jack rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have explained--[Interruption.] Order. I have explained my position, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not going to pursue a matter on which I have already ruled.

Mr. Jack: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek clarification. When my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) made a point of order from the Dispatch Box, the Leader of the

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House was able, in a subsequent point of order, to respond. Given my concern about the issue that other right hon. and hon. Members have raised about the beef ban, would it be in order for the Minister of Agriculture, who is in the Chamber this evening, to respond, if he so wished, to my concern and that of other right hon. and hon. Members? [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. [Interruption.] Order, I am calling for order. The business before us is a petition. I call the hon. Member for Angus.


Emergency Services

11.48 pm

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus): We may now move into calmer waters, Mr. Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Will the hon. Gentleman please take a seat while other hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly?

Mr. Welsh: I beg leave to present a petition in the name of Mr. James Buchanan, signed by more than 40,000 residents--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should not be standing while an hon. Gentleman is presenting a petition.

Mr. Welsh: The petition is signed by more than 40,000 residents of Angus and others. The petition declares that the law as it stands does not give the 999 emergency services adequate rights of assured access during their operations on behalf of the general public.

We all, in some way or other, rely on those emergency services--whether police, fire, ambulance or others--and all sensible motorists would, out of courtesy, give way to allow free passage to those services. Sadly, however, nowadays that courtesy is not always shown, and the petitioners want rights of access to emergency situations strengthened in the general public interest.

The petition states that:

To lie upon the Table.

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Medicines Control Agency

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

11.50 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I wish to raise a matter that is of great concern to a number of my constituents in south Cumbria, although I am sure that, like me, they would have been happy to wait for a few more minutes if another matter of great concern to them, the future of the beef industry, had been the subject of a statement.

My first, and much happier, duty is belatedly to congratulate the Minister of State for Health on her much deserved promotion. I am sure that it is only a matter of time before she finds herself in an even more elevated position on the Government Front Bench.

The Minister might be wondering why I applied for the debate, given that, as she will know, the Government announced in July some concessions on the most controversial issue concerning the Medicines Control Agency, namely, the consultation document MLX 249. I say straight away that I very much welcome the concessions that Baroness Hayman announced in her press release of 15 July. None the less, there remain some ambiguities in the Government's position, and I know from representations made to me and to hon. Members on both sides of the House that some concerns remain. There have been a number of developments since July which may prove to be significant. Accordingly, I would like to press the Minister for whatever clarifications she may be able to give.

Perhaps I should also explain to the House that I have never, to my knowledge, used or consumed herbal remedies. Given that I have a number of close relatives who are general practitioners, nurses or surgeons in the national health service, my background is one that makes me much more sympathetic to, and understanding of, conventional rather than alternative medicine. However, I believe strongly in the principle that consumers should be able to decide these matters for themselves.

I welcome the statement that was included in the letter that Baroness Hayman wrote to hon. Members on 16 July. She said:

I hope that tonight we may be able to shed a little light on what the Government mean by that in practice.

I shall begin at the beginning. MLX 249, the Government's consultation document, appeared on 6 November last year. It included the Medicines Control Agency's letter proposing that the classification process for borderline substances be put on a statutory basis. Those are substances on the borderline between foods, which are regulated by the Food Safety Act 1990, and medicines, which are regulated by the Medicines Act 1968. A new statutory instrument was proposed to put the handling of those substances on a new basis.

There are serious implications for the reclassification of a health food as a medicine. Unless otherwise exempt, a medicinal product may not be placed on the United Kingdom market without a marketing authorisation or a product licence. That is granted by the licensing authority

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when it is satisfied that the product meets the prescribed standards for safety, quality and efficacy. The point is that there is no way in which the efficacy of many of those substances can be demonstrated, at least not by conventional medical means. Yet there are many people in my constituency and throughout the country who swear by many of those products and testify in great detail about the dramatic improvements in the quality of life that they have had since they began taking them.

At present, most of those products are classified as foods. As such, they are required by the Food Safety Act 1990 to be safe. Ironically, that is not a requirement which applies to a medicinal product, where frequently quite serious side effects may be contingent upon them. Furthermore, as they are classified as foods, those making and selling them are not permitted to make any claims on the packaging or in the advertising that they will improve people's health. In those circumstances, it seems that there is a strong argument for allowing consumers a continuing freedom of choice. However, if the MCA deems that something is a medicine, a licence is required. My hon. Friends tell me that the cost of obtaining one can sometimes be up to £150,000. That is a huge sum for the very small companies that are often involved in the health food business.

The original document caused widespread concern, among not only the health food industry but from many consumer groups. Perhaps at this point I should pay tribute, and express my gratitude, to Consumers for Health Choice, and Mr. Christopher Whitehouse in particular, for whose help in briefing me I am most grateful.

I was visited at one of my advice surgeries by Elizabeth Kan of Kan Foods of Kendal, by Penny Seeds of Living Well, which has a shop in Milnthorpe and another in Grange-over-Sands, and by others on a number of occasions. A large number of my constituents in south Cumbria also wrote to me on the matter and signed petitions in health food shops and elsewhere.

The concerns at that time related to the lack of an independent appeals body, the possibility that the burden of proof would be placed on the accused, so to speak, and the fact that the consultation period was too short. There were also fears about how the legislation would be interpreted. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) raised the matter in an Adjournment debate in February this year. In July, when Baroness Hayman announced that the Government were shifting policy, she said that they would do so in three major areas: the review panel would be genuinely independent and would have statutory provision; the burden of proof would not, after all, be reversed; and the MCA would have to give full reasons for its decisions. That has been widely welcomed. I pay tribute to the effectiveness of the campaigns that were mounted, and to the fact that the Government have, however belatedly, shown a willingness to reflect on these matters and take a fresh look in the light of public representations.

However, some possible difficulties remain. I shall put to the Minister the fears of some of my constituents, with which I hope that she can deal relatively easily. Some people continue to believe that there is an implicit agenda to reclassify most or all herbal and health food productsas medicines. They fear that lobbying by powerful

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pharmaceutical companies has led to steps designed to damage the growing health food sector, and that the Medicines Control Agency has a vested interest in redesignating health foods as medicines because it secures income each time an application must be made for a medicinal licence. I hope and believe that the Minister will be able to give firm reassurances to lay those fears to rest, and I would welcome her placing on the record a clear denial of those suggestions.

In July, the Government undertook to table a new statutory instrument to reflect the changes that they had agreed to make. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us tonight when that measure is likely to be published and when she would expect it to take effect. There remain a number of concerns about the possible content of the new statutory instrument.

Given the great importance attached to the Government's assurances earlier this year about the composition of the new statutory review panel, can the Minister give the House a specific assurance that the composition, role and functions of the new statutory review panel will be written into the statutory instrument, not simply left to later guidance notes? Can she also assure us that the review panel's composition, role and functions will not be amendable simply by a change in guidance notes, but will also require amendment to the statutory instrument? Naturally, there will be guidance notes for quite a complicated measure. Will they be made available at the same time as the statutory instrument?

Will the statutory instrument make it clear that the statutory review panel is the final decision-making body, or will it leave the MCA as the final judge and jury in its own case? If the MCA is to be given the residual power to make a final determination in extreme circumstances on clear public safety grounds--which I and many in the industry believe is a perfectly reasonable position--will that condition be written into the statutory instrument? In other words, will the circumstances in which the MCA may make a final determination be made explicit, and will it be clear that the MCA would be expected to overrule the review panel only in a small minority of cases?

Given that health food manufacturers are small companies, will the Government re-examine the original provision in MLX 249 for a mere two-week period to be allowed for a reply to be made to a provisional determination by the MCA that a substance is a medicine? The Minister will understand that, for many of the small companies operating in the sector, a fortnight's notice is unfair. If there is only one person dealing with compliance or regulation issues, as may be the case with some small health food operators, that person may be away on holiday, ill or travelling on business. A two-week period for a response is a tight timetable.

Can the Minister shed any further light on the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), on 2 December to parliamentary questions tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border(Mr. Maclean)? Those answers established that the Government are considering new regulations to cover herbal remedies following European Directive 99/83 EC, which was passed in September this year, and also that the MCA is to review its current list of specified and toxic herbs. Does the Minister expect those two processes to expand or reduce the range of herbal products available to consumers in the UK?

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Will the Minister say a word about a matter that has caused great concern in my constituency? Penny Seeds of Living Well mentioned it to me earlier. The MCA has just written to food manufacturers to inform them that it proposes to designate as a medicine St. John's wort, the most popular herbal remedy in the UK at the moment. St. John's wort has been around in this country for many decades and has been used with success for a long time.

I am told that, ironically, the catalyst for the MCA's decision to seek classification of St. John's wort as a medicine was research published in the British Medical Journal, which established that the remedy's effectiveness in tackling depression may not be an old wives' tale after all, and may be medically provable. I hope that the Minister agrees that it would be the greatest irony of all if it turned out that the provision of scientific proof of the effectiveness of a herbal remedy led directly to the imposition of costly and difficult procedures, resulting in far fewer people gaining access to it than were able to do so when there was no scientific proof of its efficacy. What reassurances might the Minister be able to give?

I know that the Minister will appreciate that many of the problems stem from the fact that some of the products--whether we call them herbs, dietary supplements or health foods--are not easily classifiable, as either a food or a medicine. She will be aware that the industry believes that its future lies in the fast-growing sector of blended products, in which vitamins, minerals and, perhaps, amino acids are rolled together with a herbal remedy such as St. John's wort. If the herbal remedy element has to be licensed separately as a medicine, the whole range of multi-blend products have also to be licensed individually.

Would the Minister be prepared to consider seriously the suggestion floated earlier this year by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), the shadow Health Minister, that a new category should be created in which supplements could be grouped? She will know that the industry feels strongly on that point, too.

In such a category, there would be no requirements to prove the efficacy of the product, as there are at present, but instead a streamlined procedure for dealing with legitimate and important safety concerns. The proposal would ensure that the hundreds of supplements now available--their properties are often questioned by some, while others swear by them--would be protected and would remain available.

I know that the idea has been supported by many in the industry, and by many consumers too. It was also supported earlier today in conversations that I had with both consumers and sellers of such products in my constituency. Would not a new category of natural remedies, falling between food and medicine, be more accurate, lead to better regulation, and encourage the growth of a burgeoning sector that is much supported by people throughout the country? I invite the Minister to recognise the merits of something that we might both agree is the third way.

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