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20 Jan 2003 : Column 115—continued

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): The hon. Gentleman has voiced many of the anxieties that lie behind our motion, and indeed behind early-day motions signed by many Members. Does he not realise that this motion gives him, and others on both sides of the House, an opportunity to make their point robustly?

Alan Simpson: I do, and the terms of the motion certainly presented an initial attraction. The more I read the Government's amendment, however, the more I saw a compelling case for Members on both sides of the House to support it. We are talking about negotiations that are currently in progress, and our debate should send Ministers a message about where we want the progress to end up. That will, I think, strengthen their position. The message is clear: if we as a Government fail to meet demands made by Members on both sides of the House, Members on both sides of the House will not give their support.

Let me say something about the proposed directive on traditional herbal medicinal products. I urge the House to be cautious about the catalogue of criticisms that we are offered in relation to the dangers of herbal products. It would sit more easily on my conscience if we had a similar list of the problems associated with manufactured pharmaceutical drugs. The catalogue of health disasters foisted on people by an industry that appears at times to be able literally to get away with murder is scandalous.

In that context, it is outrageous for us to allow ourselves a distorted debate that fails to recognise the thousands of years of knowledge—especially in the east—of the use of traditional herbal remedies. The issue is not the use of the herb involved, but an understanding of dosage. That has always been the basis of the

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application of such remedies. The House must not become trapped in a caricature of a debate—an exchange in which scare stories are thrown around, suggesting that if Ayurvedic medicines or different herbs are used there will be terrible consequences for us all. Using such herbs in an informed fashion is arguably one of the best ways of giving people more responsibility for and control over their own well-being, and all parties in the House should welcome that.

We would like the Minister to return from his negotiation with affirmative answers based on the need to address the existence of products that have been on the market for some time, and ought not to be outside the loop of existing or proposed legislation. We should oppose the suggestion that no new products should be brought on to the market even if they have been available in another EU country and have a good safety record. We should recognise that the standards for manufacturing of such products must relate to food safety rather than medicinal standards. We should allow more emphasis to be put on labelling, rather than on the restriction of dosages.

One question relating to how the markets will function after the two directives are agreed on and become operative will concern the number and nature of suppliers. The costs of compliance will have a profound effect on the range and character of the choices that the public face.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister will agree tonight to commit the United Kingdom to five clear points at the negotiations. The UK must reserve a position that gives it the right to derogations, otherwise the consensus would be for a market that was so restricted that it was diametrically opposed to everything that the UK has built up. We must emphasise upper safety levels rather than minimum risk restrictions. We must have a commitment to abolish the arbitrary period that a herbal product must be on the EU market before it is allowed to register. We must press for maximum rights to clear information about product labelling, and minimum presumptions that positive health choices need to be medicalised rather than just publicised. Finally, we must try to set the lowest possible price hurdles for product registration in each of the respective markets.

Consumer choice will depend not on the assurances of agencies or Ministers but on the freedoms, derogations and choices that end up being written into the legislation or directives. The UK is committed to a strong negotiating position. The message that must come from the House is that we must deliver on that position if the House eventually is to offer any support to the final directives that come through.

9.1 pm

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is to be congratulated on his choice of debate this evening and on the eloquent way in which he set out his stall and explained in great detail some of the problems that we face. I will try to add a little colour to what he said.

Talking of colour, I straight away refer to the Minister's speech. She presented an amazingly rosy picture of the Government's approach and what they have done in the past few months. I am astonished to

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hear her blame organisations such as Consumers for Health Choice for scaremongering, and others for distributing leaflets when it is the very fact that they generated interest among the public that brought the Government to their senses and got them to act in the first place.

If the Minister casts her mind back to the spring of last year, the Department of Health was in disarray on the matter. It was impossible for any of the manufacturers such as the ones to which the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) referred to see a Minister to put their case. It was not until her Department agreed to meet me, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and industry experts on 17 June to discuss the problems that the Department became aware of what was going on. The only reason why the Minister and Lord Hunt agreed to meet us then was that the next day they were going before Standing Committee C and they were going to get a right grilling.

In the Minister's defence, she had just taken over the brief from, from memory, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). It was not easy to go before that Committee at that time but she did and she defended herself in an honourable way, on the basis that she had very little knowledge of the subject; that is a slightly double-edged compliment.

We have many specific concerns about the directive and they have been listed this evening: unreasonably requiring 30 years' continuous medical use; unreasonable demands for compliance; the exclusion of safe and popular products; and leaving many combination products outside the directive's remit. I should like to look at some of those in turn but, to give an example of how wrong the Government got it, they had to extend the consultation period on the herbal directive. It was not an achievement to extend the consultation period; it happened because the Government were behind the game. That was the problem. On 18 June, the Minister appeared before the Standing Committee and had a pretty rough time of it. It was only then that we saw some action.

The Minister has given a typically upbeat, new Labourish presentation. [Interruption.] She shakes her head—perhaps she is part of old Labour, but she has given such a presentation. However, I do not want to get her into any trouble. In her rather clever debating style, she managed to focus on the few rogue problems that have occurred in the herbal industry. She referred to aristolochia, as I knew she would. We have surely been round that track before: the mis-prescription of a wrongly labelled drug by the wrong practitioners at the wrong time for the wrong purposes, and the resulting problems. She has gone on about the hoary old chestnut of steroids in creams—yes, we know all about that—and one or two other matters.

The Minister has tried to distract us from the issue. No one on this side of the House wants unsafe remedies on the market, and it is a good thing that two professional committees, under Professor Pitillo and Lord Chan, are looking at herbal medicine and Chinese acupuncture, and trying to draw the strands together in this country. No one is suggesting for one second that we want unsafe products on the shelves. The real problem is that the shelves will be denuded if this Government do not get their act together. I am very

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relieved to hear that, almost at the last fence, the Minister has got some good news on combination therapies.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) mentioned the dangers of herbal medicines when compared with other products, as did the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). I nearly described the latter as my hon. Friend—perhaps because we once led a march together. I have looked up the figures. In 1997, the last year for which figures were provided, 562 people died from taking paracetamol, and 51 died from taking aspirin. In his winding-up speech, the Minister who is to reply might like to tell us how many people in this country have died from eating parsley, or from taking most of the other herbs that are obtainable in stores such as Holland and Barrett. The Minister made much of this issue, but the fact is that the number of herbs that have caused health problems is very small indeed. Generally speaking, such problems have occurred because of incorrect labelling and rogue marketing. We obviously welcome a tightening up in that regard, but we do not want this Government to be rolled over and knocked about by members of the Commission or the European Parliament because they failed to present Britain's case effectively.

The really big issues that we are considering through the motion are borderline products and the combination products of herbs, vitamins and minerals. The Minister made much of the positive lists, which she says are still open, but she has said little about the costs that manufacturers will have to incur if they are not on those lists. Even if they are on those lists, they will still have to produce complex dossiers—[Interruption.] I note that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South is nodding. They will also have to clear the hurdles set by the Medicines Control Agency. That will of course result in restriction of choice—my party stands for choice, not restriction—and it will prove damaging to the industry as a whole. Are the Government really in favour of monopolies in this field? What will happen to the small producers? I am slightly suspicious of the position taken by the hon. Member for South Derbyshire, because I have a feeling that he is representing only the larger manufacturers, such as the one in his constituency. We should focus much more on the little people. We do not want them to be wiped out.

I was pleased to hear today from the Minister about the new negotiations on simplified procedures. That announcement conveniently slipped out today in order to take the wind out of our sails, and having seen what happened in the Department before the Minister participated in Standing Committee C, I have no conscience about offering such criticism. We have all called for simplified procedures, and we want vitamins, herbs and minerals to be sold in this country as they were in the past. This has been a bone of contention, and although the Minister says that everything is wonderful and that they have been on top of the situation the entire time, that simply is not the case. She must accept that fact—[Interruption.] I do not know whether she is smiling or blushing, but it would not surprise me if she were upset at thinking about what happened in the past.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) referred to the work of MEPs. The Government are not responsible for the amendments to

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the traditional herbal medicines directive; that responsibility lies with John Bowis, MEP, the former Member for Battersea. I spoke to him on the telephone at some length this afternoon. I said, "Put me straight. What have the Government actually done?" He replied, "Precious little. They let it coast along. They did not intend to do much." Only the pressure that has been brought to bear on them has caused them to take any action at all. The amendments are nothing to do with the Government. They were produced by the Conservatives in the European Parliament and include amendment No. 1, which concerns easier registration, and Nos. 9 and 11, which are about combinations. Some of them are supported by the Liberal Democrats—I will give them that.

The awful truth is that the letters sent out by Lord Hunt in the summer were intended to lull us into a false sense of security, but it is possible that the amendments will be rejected and that we will be in a worse situation than we were in the spring. Perhaps when he winds up the debate the Under-Secretary will tell us whether there is a guarantee that the amendments will be accepted. In this case, the big gun wheeled out by the Government was inertia. They let the issue drag on. It is only the determination of certain groups to bring the subject to people's attention and to needle the Government about it that has brought them kicking and screaming to the point where they take the issues seriously.

The Council of Ministers, which is made up of national representatives, will have an impact on the matter, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), should get in there and make strong points. We want to see a little fire in her belly and a little action. We do not want to hear from our representatives in Europe that nothing much is going on. The former Member for Battersea is a very honourable man, and in our conversation earlier we were not trying to make political points. I asked him what line I should take in this debate, and he said that not much has been done about the matter. It is not very good.

The Minister still has time to effect change. The Government should introduce proposals that would allow the UK to set national rules to permit the continued sale of products that are safe and appropriately labelled, but which may lie outside the restricted code. They should abolish the completely arbitrary period for which a product must have been on the EU market before being allowed registration. That period has no relation with the availability of safe data. Finally—the Government can certainly do this—they should end the attempts by the Medicines Control Agency to regulate herbal medicines as if they were pharmaceutical drugs, thus reducing compliance costs. We are talking about the third way, which has been referred to in the past. That was part of earlier legislation but it was never implemented.

I turn briefly to the food supplements directive. We have already heard about the problem of minimum dosage levels, and the hon. Members for Nottingham, South and for Bolton, South-East have spoken about the pressure in Europe to reduce the maximum permitted levels of vitamins. If the Government do not stand up and sort this out, it will simply be a tax on poor

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people. They will buy the amount that they want—they will buy on the internet and get the products from abroad—but they will have to pay three times as much. The Government must stand up and be counted. It is wrong that we should be forced to reduce the levels of vitamins when 20 per cent. of the nation are using supplements and complementary therapies. It is time for the Government to be tough.

The possible effects of the directives include the loss of thousands of safe, popular herbal products, completely unnecessary restrictions on consumer choice, substantial job losses in the retail sector, the bankruptcy of several specialist manufacturers and retailers, an adverse impact on public health and a substantial increase in the number of visits to general practitioners.

The Government's approach to the directives has been the most appalling example of inertia, muddle, late action, refusal to consult, defensiveness and, if not deception, at least sleight of hand. We are often told, as we have been tonight, that everything will be all right in the end, but the amendments could be thrown out and worse could come. We shall not avoid problems in the future. The Government have done far too little, far too late, but I hope that some good may come out of it.

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