Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Food Supplements

7. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): If he will make a statement on the future availability of food supplements and traditional herbal medicinal products to consumers. [67270]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears): Our intention is to ensure continuing availability of a wide range of food supplements and traditional herbal remedies, within the European legislative framework. We aim to achieve that by active participation in the work required to follow up the recent food supplements directive, and through the continuing negotiations on the proposed directives on traditional herbal medicinal products, and on the review of medicines legislation.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful for that reply. The traditional herbal medicinal products directive threatens the availability of 70 per cent. of safe herbal products in the UK. The food supplements directive, to which the Minister referred, would ban 300 safe nutrients and many safe higher potency vitamins. I have considerable regard and affection for the Minister—[Interruption.] Will she listen to Consumers for Health Choice, the National Association of Health Stores and the Health Food Manufacturers Association? They speak positively and accurately for the industry and its many thousands of consumers.

Ms Blears: I will take the matter more slowly, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to do the same. There are proper and genuine concerns in this regard, which the Government take very seriously. Just last week, Lord Hunt and I met representatives from the industry as a whole. We talked particularly about the traditional herbal medicines directive. Some industry representatives welcome the quality and safety standards being applied to manufacturing, but people from the health food sector are

16 Jul 2002 : Column 151

worried about some of the products. We have extended the consultation period to the end of July, and are looking for areas of over-regulation or for instances of items that might be excluded.

We intend to continue the debate. It is important that people have access to the widest range of products, but that must be balanced by measures to protect public health and safety. It is a matter of getting that balance absolutely right.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): May I commend the Government's increasingly measured approach on this matter? Some hon. Members were critical of the haste with which the Government supported proposed European regulation in this area. I remind my hon. Friend of the important prize at the end of the process—a single European framework for the consumption of these products. That will be valuable to companies such as Peter Black and Surepharm in my constituency.

Ms Blears: Yes. I am conscious that the regulations have been welcomed in some respects because, if they provide a more secure regulatory framework, products such as herbal medicines will gain more respect in the market place and consumers will be able to rely on their quality. We must not take our eye off the ball: there is a prize to be won at the end, and that is getting the best deal for manufacturers and consumers, while at the same time protecting public health and safety. We are determined to be very active in the negotiations to achieve that.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Minister will recall that, when we debated this matter in European Standing Committee C, I queried the directive's loose wording. The Minister assured the Committee that no legal foodstuff products would be barred as a result of the directive. However, Lord Hunt admitted on 27 June that several products would be excluded. Will the Minister take this opportunity to correct the statement that she made to the Committee before it divided on the matter?

Ms Blears: Yes. I told the Committee that certain combination products were unlawful at present, and would remain so after the directive was implemented. The directive itself will not make those products unlawful. Some of those combination products are not covered by regulation, and we are looking at that. The hon. Gentleman is right that some ingredients are not on the permitted list, but that is a separate matter. The Government are pressing to get as many dossiers as possible approved for food supplements and traditional herbal medicines so that the list of permitted ingredients can be extended. I repeat, however, that some combination products are illegal now and will remain so after the implementation of the directive. That will not be a result of the directive, but we must be conscious of the need for a regulatory home for those products.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I thank my hon. Friend for her answers so far. As a Member of the European Scrutiny Committee that referred the matter for debate in the Standing Committee, may I point out that some of us still have concerns that it should not be dealt with at European level? Questions of subsidiarity and where we deal with such matters are for debate in the

16 Jul 2002 : Column 152

Convention on the Future of Europe. I hope that the Government of the United Kingdom will think seriously before allowing Europe to make decisions on matters that should really be between consumers and health authorities in the UK. The prime directive should be to give good advice and then to let the consumer decide what they want to use.

Ms Blears: Again, that is about finding the correct balance. Matters relating to medicines are regulated at European level because there are pharmaceutical safety issues. We are talking not merely about herbal products but herbal medicines that have a physiological effect and thus fall within a regulatory framework. It is important to get the safety issues absolutely right. The matter is not one of unaccountable European decision making: the directive is subject to co-decision and consideration and has been subjected to scrutiny in the House. However, it is important to recognise that, in the case of medicines, the regulatory framework is extremely important for the safety of consumers.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Will the Minister accept that there is considerable disquiet among users of these products about what is going on? Will she also accept that they can see no justification for interference in the exercise of their decision and their freedom to pick and choose? Will she give serious consideration to abandoning what is going on? Can she justify the Government persisting with something that is both unwanted and unpopular with the people most directly affected by their actions?

Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman must be careful; it is a matter of finding the right balance. I hope that he is aware of some of the ingredients of traditional medicines, such as aristolochia, which is found in some traditional Chinese medicines and has caused two cases of kidney failure in the UK. There is a question over kava kava which has caused three deaths abroad. There have also been interactions between St. John's wort and contraceptives where that medicine caused considerable harm.

There are public safety and public health issues. Many manufacturers welcome measures for quality standards, to ensure that the right quality ingredients are used and that the processes are transparent and open to inspection. It is important that we engage actively in the matter; we cannot simply leave it to the market and individual choice.

Suicides (Women)

8. Sue Doughty (Guildford): What his policy is on reducing the incidence of suicide among women. [67271]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): We published the national suicide prevention strategy for England for public consultation on 26 April 2002. It is a comprehensive, evidence-based strategy to prevent suicide. The strategy describes key actions already taken, and proposes further actions to be taken, to help meet the target set out in the White Paper, "Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation". In addition, the Department

16 Jul 2002 : Column 153

is producing a strategy for women's mental health that will ensure that reformed mental health services meet the needs of women.

Sue Doughty: I thank the Minister for that answer. Is she aware that suicide is the main and rising cause of death among pregnant and perinatal women and new mothers? Different forms of suicide are occurring; there are many more violent methods and they are gender- specific. What is being done to increase awareness among health professionals of the risk to that particular group of women?

Jacqui Smith: I think that the hon. Lady refers to information in the confidential inquiry into maternal

16 Jul 2002 : Column 154

deaths. It is worth putting the deaths from suicide among that group of women into context: the report highlighted 28 deaths due to suicide in more than 2 million maternities. However, she is right—any suicide is serious. The confidential inquiry made several recommendations for the management of women who are at risk of serious mental illness following delivery. In May, the Department produced a supplement insert for the GP magazine PrimaryCare, which included the key issues from the inquiry, to help to raise awareness of the factors that can contribute to maternal deaths. We also produced a separate midwifery summary of the confidential inquiry, and the findings will of course feed into the development of the maternity module of the children's national service framework.

16 Jul 2002 : Column 155

Next Section

IndexHome Page