Water Bill [Lords]

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Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): Does it say anywhere in the York report that the water supply should not be fluoridated?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is correct to suggest that the York report does not say that. Nor does it say that the water supply should be fluoridated; that is the point. Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, who was on the advisory panel for the York review, wrote, in response to the Government's acceptance of the report, that there was not

    ''any discrepancy in praising fluoridation as a health measure while admitting that too little was known about its effects.''

That is my response to the hon. Gentleman—we do not know; the science has not been fully done. The Government accepted what the York report said as carte blanche to put fluoride in our water supply, although the case has not been proved at all.

Mr. Wiggin: Earl Baldwin of Bewdley has been extremely vociferous about what is in the York report. One of the biggest problems is the misinterpretation of the science. It is fair to say that the York report is

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probably the only science that has been done on the subject—

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): It is a review of the science.

Mr. Wiggin: Perhaps I exaggerated, and if so, I apologise. However, the York report seems to be the definitive document on the science that has been done. Earl Baldwin has been vociferous against the addition of fluoride, and it is only fair to take his point of view extremely seriously, because he was involved in the report. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) has covered that point, but I would be grateful if he would say a little more about it.

Mr. Thomas: I thank the hon. Gentleman, and indeed I will say a little more about it. In response to the way that the York report had been received, Professor Trevor Sheldon, the chairman of the review advisory panel, said:

    ''The review team was surprised that in spite of the large number of studies carried out over several decades there is a dearth of reliable evidence with which to inform policy. Until high quality studies are undertaken providing more definite evidence, there will continue to be legitimate scientific controversy over the likely effects and costs of water fluoridation.''

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said that the York report was a review of the science, and I accept that, but the Minister's letter to us of 16 October says that when the York report reviewed the science, it found a lack of reasonably peer-reviewed current evidence. That is why Professor Sheldon said that

    ''in spite of the large number of studies carried out over several decades there is a dearth of reliable evidence with which to inform policy''.

We need to go beyond the views of both the anti-fluoride campaigners and the Government, and consider the York report carefully.

Dr. Iddon: I take a great interest in Down's syndrome. Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence to suggest that in areas that have been fluoridated for 40 years, such as Birmingham and the west midlands, there are more incidences of Down's syndrome than anywhere else in the country? Does he not think that if that were the case, it would have come to the fore in the last 40 years?

Mr. Thomas: I would have expected the York review to say that there was no link or danger whatever. The hon. Gentleman knows that it said that further high-quality research into that is needed. I am not a scientist—my science stopped at advanced O-level—and I confess that I must be guided by science. When the chairman of a review panel says that there is legitimate scientific controversy, I, as a legislator, want to know the answer to that controversy.

I make a personal decision to brush my teeth with fluoride twice a day; I have no problem using fluoride myself, as that is my own decision. The question is what we are indemnifying water companies against in this regard. We are not indemnifying Boots against putting fluoride in toothpaste or the local pharmacy against selling fluoridated toothpaste, so why are we indemnifying water companies? Is it because the

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Government recognise that questions could be asked? Is it because certain factors could emerge if countrywide or large-scale fluoridation were introduced? Is it because things are emerging in Switzerland and America, and questions about the efficacy of fluoridation are being asked?

These amendments relate only to the indemnity. Questions should be asked about whether fluoridating water achieves what the Government think it achieves, or at least whether it is better than simply having a good oral care regime and educational programme. No doubt we shall have the opportunity to say something about that.

My fundamental question is: if the York review says so clearly that we need further high-quality research, why are Members of Parliament being asked to legislate without that research? I cannot support any measure to introduce fluoride into our water supply unless and until we see that research, and unless and until there is no scientific controversy over the addition of fluoride to the water supply.

Norman Baker: It is perhaps inevitable that we progress to the wider issue when discussing these amendments. I have considerable sympathy with the points made by the hon. Gentleman. However, I shall try, without prejudice, to limit my remarks to the amendments before us. That involves the question, which has been asked by two hon. Members this morning, of what these indemnities are for. Clearly, we need to have that spelt out. It also raises the fairly common-sense point that, if there is no risk whatever, why are water companies so insistent on having the indemnities in the first place? That seems to make no sense.

That said, if there were a risk, or even if there were no risk, water companies should not be in the firing line. It is right that they should not be exposed to any potential action in future. They are in the middle, between the public, who may, theoretically, wish to complain, and the Government, who wish to push this measure through. In a sense, the companies are an unwilling agent for this proposal, so they should not be exposed. The basis of the amendments leads to a number of questions that have been asked, and I need not repeat them.

Dr. Iddon: Is not the greatest risk that fanatics against fluoridation, particularly supporters of the National Pure Water Association, will litigate, and that the water companies do not want to stand the cost of that litigation?

Norman Baker: It is clear that water companies should not have to defend themselves, be distracted or have a financial penalty imposed for something that is not their doing. To that extent, I support the Bill's indemnity proposals, but it still prompts the question as to why they are there in the first place. If legislation clearly concludes that they are required if fluoride is to be added to water, that would be a defence in law for the water companies, which I suggest would be watertight in any case. The legal action likely to be taken by fanatics, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East put it—I would not use that word—against the water companies would not be very

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successful if companies had a statutory duty to add fluoride in the first place.

Richard Burden: The hon. Gentleman has, I am sure, gone through the arguments about this. A statutory requirement to fluoridate water could not be included for the very reason that one does not need to put fluoride in water where it occurs naturally.

9.15 am

Norman Baker: That is the situation now. We have managed without indemnities or requirements on water companies, but the Government now seek to move the goalposts and introduce a measure that they feel requires indemnities to be introduced. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but why, then, is the clause before us? It is because a new situation is arising. I am unhappy with the whole process, but I will not go on about the science now, because that would probably be better dealt with under a later group of amendments.

I do not want to get off on the wrong foot with the Minister, but she would not allow me to intervene first thing this morning. In every other sitting, the other Minister allowed interventions at every opportunity by every member of the Committee. I would not wish her to have begun as she has.

Miss Johnson rose—

Norman Baker: I do not intend to give way. The Minister can take her turn, as I had to take mine. Perhaps she will be kind enough to address in her concluding remarks the intervention that I wanted to make: will she clarify the position in respect of private water suppliers? I think that they supply about 2 per cent. of the water in this country, but they can be significant in local areas, and there may be some pressure for fluoride to be added in those areas. I am thinking, for example, of a place in my constituency where there is a facility owned by the Glynde estate, which supplies an entire village. Such an arrangement is not unusual. How will the Bill affect private water suppliers?

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I want to refer to the remarks of the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin). It does seem quite tropical here. Have we not gone from one extreme to the other?

The Chairman: That is not a point of order.

Miss Johnson: I assure the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that I normally take many interventions. It was just that I had virtually one sentence left to say at that point and there seemed to be no sense in allowing an intervention, given that I knew that he would have a lot of remarks to make. I had perhaps forgotten that the Liberal Democrats are not the main Opposition, so I assumed that he would follow me. [Hon. Members: ''You can do better than that.''] Opposition Members are on a touchy day; we will have to be careful with their egos.

The point of the proposal is to ensure that no water company is in a different position from any other. However, as hon. Members will appreciate, this is

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about enabling local communities to decide for themselves on fluoridation; it is not about this place taking the decision. As a result, some areas may be fluoridated—some already are—and others will not be. For that reason, companies may find themselves in a different position.

 
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