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Water Bill [Lords]

Water Bill [Lords]

Column Number: 399

Standing Committee D

Thursday 23 October 2003

(Morning)

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Water Bill [Lords]

Clause 61

Fluoridation of water supplies

8.55 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Miss Melanie Johnson): I beg to move amendment No. 319, in

    clause 61, page 76, line 28, leave out from 'until' to end of line 30 and insert

    'an indemnity with respect to the arrangements has been given by virtue of section 90 below—

    (a) to the water undertaker; and

    (b) to any licensed water supplier which is entitled to one.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 220, in

    clause 61, page 80, leave out lines 6 to 9 and insert—

    '(1) The Secretary of State shall indemnify every water undertaker which enters into arrangements under section 87(1) above against all liabilities that any such undertaker may incur in complying with such arrangements, other than liabilities arising from the undertaker's own fault or negligence.

    (1A) Subject to subsection (1) above, each indemnity shall be on such terms as (with the consent of the Treasury) may be agreed between the Secretary of State and the undertaker.'.

Government amendment No. 343.

Amendment No. 111, in

    clause 61, page 80, leave out lines 10 to 15.

Amendment No. 221, in

    clause 61, page 80, line 10, at beginning insert

    'Subject to subsection (1) above'.

Amendment No. 222, in

    clause 61, page 80, leave out lines 12 and 13.

Government amendment No. 344.

Miss Johnson: It is a pleasure to rise in the knowledge that discussions have been going on for some time without me. The only other time that that happens is when the Chief Secretary to the Treasury occasionally appears in Committee for the Finance Bill, but I am afraid that I cannot claim such status.

The amendments relate to the indemnities granted by the Secretary of State to water suppliers that agree to fluoridate a water supply under arrangements with a strategic health authority and water undertaker. They are of great significance to the water industry, and as a general policy, we would not want a water supplier that agrees to fluoridate to incur any additional liabilities compared with one that does not have a fluoridation scheme.

Amendment No. 319 provides for licensed water suppliers to be given an indemnity if they agree to fluoridate a water supply under arrangements made

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between a strategic health authority and water undertaker. Although we do not envisage strategic health authorities making arrangements with licensed water suppliers to fluoridate, we would not want to discourage licensed water suppliers from supplying water as well as water undertakers.

We want to ensure that there would not be any disincentive to a licensed water supplier bidding to supply water in a fluoridated area. We originally thought that the indemnity would be covered on the access agreement made between the undertaker and licensed supplier. We now consider that it would be more satisfactory if the licensed supplier had an indemnity in its own right.

Amendments Nos. 343 and 344 are consequential to amendment No. 319. Amendment No. 343 provides for both a situation in which the licensee is distributing water fluoridated by a water undertaker and one in which the licensee is fluoridating water under an agreement with the undertaker.

I have some sympathy with amendment No. 220 and consequential amendments Nos. 221 and 222, but I cannot commit at this stage to indemnifying suppliers against all liabilities. It is our general intention to give wide indemnities, but I want to reserve our position until we start work on the regulations so that we can tease out in greater detail how, for example, negligence on the part of the water undertaker could be excluded. Regulations could also contain model indemnities agreed by the Secretary of State and the Treasury, which the strategic health authorities and water undertakers could insert into their arrangements without needing Whitehall to go over the detail on every occasion. The flexibility would be prevented by new subsection (1)(a) proposed in the amendment.

Norman Baker (Lewes): Will the Minister give way?

Miss Johnson: No, I think that I will finish my remarks, and then the hon. Gentleman may make his own.

On amendment No. 111, the Water Industry Act 1991 currently provides the power for the Secretary of State to grant indemnities, but with little detail on what they may cover. The Department has produced some model indemnities, but they do not have any statutory force. We want to remedy that, but it would not be appropriate to include the detail in the Bill.

In light of those assurances, I commend amendments Nos. 319, 343 and 344 to the Committee, and I hope that Opposition Members will not press their amendments, on the understanding that the issues will be addressed in the regulations, which will be debated in the House under the affirmative resolution procedure.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): What a change to be in this rather tropical atmosphere rather than the freezing conditions in which we were considering what became known as the Ice Bill. The Minister has already made a generous concession this morning by recognising the value of amendment No. 220, and I am extremely grateful to her. If we can continue with this co-operation we may have a better Bill.

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The Minister talked about different policies for different water companies. Can she confirm that the differences in the policies will not mean that people in some areas are properly indemnified and in others they are not, or that if consumers have evidence that fluoride in the water is doing them damage they will be able to sue in some areas but not in others?

We want proper protection for consumers in all areas. I am therefore surprised that the Government have chosen to go down this route of different policies. Obviously, different insurance companies will provide different types of cover. That may not be exactly what she meant and I would be grateful if she could come back to that. She also talked about the phrase ''all liabilities''. Obviously, when taken on its own it covers everything, but that is not the intention of amendment No. 220; it is intended to refer to all liabilities connected to the addition of fluoride to the water.

Miss Johnson: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that his amendment uses that phrase: hence my remarks.

Mr. Wiggin: That leads nicely on to the Minister telling us what liabilities she proposes to cover and what will be excluded. What sums of money will be put aside or paid by the Government to provide that sort of cover? Anyone who drives a car knows that they have to be insured for pretty much everything that they do when something goes wrong even though that can be well out of their control. Yet at the same time it seems that the Government are being a bit weaselly here about what they mean by all liabilities, although I am sure that that is not what they intend. We need to know exactly what the Government mean, what they will do, how much it will cost and what is not included in the insurance liabilities.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. We cannot consider whether the Government should be fluoridating in the first place unless we know exactly what that will protect us against. After all, this is a balance. ''Proportionality'' is one of my favourite words, thanks to the Minister for the Environment, who has remained silent this morning, perhaps tragically. We are balancing the risk of tooth decay in young children against a risk that may be faced by all people, whatever their age.

I do not believe that science is sufficiently clear about whether fluoridation is a good thing. If I am to be persuaded that it is, I must know that the safeguards are in place. Unfortunately the Minister's statement is far from clear about that. She has quite a lot of work to do to convince us not only that the proper scientific work has been done, but that the proper protection is in place. I look forward to hearing how she does that.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I want to follow up on the hon. Gentleman's comments. What was missing from the Minister's introduction was any explanation of why we need to indemnify water companies against the addition of fluorides into our water supply. Could it be because the product in question is registered as a part II poison under the

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Poisons Act 1972? Could it be because the Government's York report asked for further serious research to be undertaken into IQ and congenital defects that may be associated with the addition of fluoride to our water supply?

How will silicofluorides be brought into our food stream? That, in effect, is what will happen if we take them into our water supply; we will ingest them along with our food and drink. I do not know precisely how silicofluorides will be brought into our food stream when they are still registered as a part II poison, along with arsenic and paraquat. We need to indemnify water companies against putting arsenic and paraquat in our water supply, and so we need to indemnify them against putting fluoride in our water supply. Why do we need to indemnify water companies? Could it be anything to do with the fact that the Medicines Control Agency has refused to class silicofluorides as a medicinal product? We are talking about putting something into our food and drink supply that may do us harm.

The Minister is the Under-Secretary of State for Health, after all, so it would be nice to hear a little bit about health in this context. Could she tell us precisely what further high-quality research her Department has commissioned to inform the debates of the Committee and the House on the addition of fluorides to our water supply? What research, asked for in the York report, has been commissioned on the possible negative effects on IQ and on congenital defects, particularly Down's syndrome?

In the Minister's letter of 16 October—which, I take it, she sent to all members of the Committee—she says that further high-quality research, specifically asked for, has now been downgraded to a low priority. That is a scandal; it is scandalous that, when the Government commission an independent report into a possibly dangerous additive to our water supply, and that report says that we need high-quality research on the possible effect of fluorides on congenital brain defects, we do not get it.

 
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