Water Bill [Lords]

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud): It would be helpful if we knew what legal advice the Government received. There is an expectation on the part of water companies that they will face litigation. It would be helpful to know in particular what discussions there have been between the lawyers of the water companies and the Government lawyers.

Miss Johnson: I have to try to help my hon. Friend, but the Government's legal advice is seldom supplied. In this case, I am not aware of any legal advice other than that relating to what ought to go in the Bill—lawyers are obviously involved in that connection.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): But surely legal advice must have been taken as to the compatibility of this provision with the European convention on human rights in order for the Minister for the Environment to make the statement that he did.

Miss Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is being a little technical. Of course, that matter has been dealt with, otherwise Ministers would not have signed off the statement that all Ministers must sign off. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) may gesticulate and wave the Bill about, but it is true that every Minister must sign such a statement. However, that is not the point being raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). He is asking whether we have sought specific legal advice on the issue of litigation. All I can say is that I am not aware of any such advice being sought.

The water companies are now competing commercially with one another, and we think that that is to the consumer's advantage. We must ensure that there is no difference in respect of fluoridation, so we must ensure that no fluoridating undertaker is worse off. That is the Government's position, and that is what the amendments are designed to achieve. It is not the private insurance companies that will bear the risk but the Exchequer. The Government therefore carry any risk that there is, and I shall come to what it is in a moment.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): On the point of water companies being concerned about possible litigation that may go against them, has the Minister any record from the past 40 years of cases of litigation relating to suppliers of water to Birmingham and the east midlands and fluoride in the water.

Miss Johnson: I am not aware of any such cases. My hon. Friend brings me on to another important point. There are many countries in the world, as well as the UK, where fluoridation has been happening for a long time. That includes huge sections of the population and a large chunk of the USA, a country where litigation is often to the fore. In the United States, 64 per cent. of the population receives fluoridated water, and I am not aware that that has been a issue. Los Angeles took the decision in 1999 to add fluoride

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to the water, so that covers another large chunk of the US population. In some parts of the UK, fluoride has been in our water for many decades. About 6 million UK residents drink water with fluoride in it.

Mr. Thomas: The Minister has just said there have been no cases of litigation in areas that have fluoridated water supply. She has also said that she is not aware of any legal advice from the water companies regarding indemnity. If there is no indemnity at present, why on earth include it in the Bill?

Miss Johnson: Section 90 of the Water Industry Act 1991 already provides for the Secretary of State to indemnify water companies against liabilities connected with fluoridation. In terms of the exercise of indemnities, we are talking about one Birmingham resident in the past five years who would not pay his water bill.

As I know from my former ministerial job, the water companies are now in a highly competitive industry. They are nervous about anything that makes any difference between one company and another. Therefore, the Government must ensure that the playing field is level. Some hon. Members seem to be attaching too much excitement to this issue.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Has the cost of this indemnity to the taxpayer been estimated? Is legal action anticipated? If there were any action, how much would that cost the taxpayer?

Miss Johnson: I am not aware of any such costings, or of any anxiety about the matter.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion discussed Down's syndrome and fluoridation. The York study found that there was no association between them—but it was critical of the quality of the evidence. The Medical Research Council also did not find any plausible medical explanation for that association, so it regarded research in this area as a low priority.

Nothing that anyone takes in can be guaranteed to be 100 per cent. safe, but when consideration is given to the record of fluoride in water throughout the world—including the UK—it must be concluded that there is no evidence that it causes a lot of the problems that people are raising. If the hon. Member for Ceredigion was really concerned about this matter, he would not have fluoride in his toothpaste.

Mr. Thomas: That is a matter of individual choice, which is what I want to preserve for everyone in this country.

It is my understanding that the York survey team found no evidence of an association between bone factors, infant mortality, cancer and water fluoridation. However, on possible negative outcomes—such as congenital and IQ defects—it stated that further high-quality research is required. The Minister said that, in response to that, the Medical Research Council stated that research on this matter was a low priority. However, she released a press statement on 4 September, in which she stated that she had asked the chief medical officer and the chief dental officer to advise on the implications of the

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York report for Government policy on fluoridation. What has been the content of that advice?

Miss Johnson: We have had a 48-year experience of fluoridation in parts of the country. The York report was commissioned. The MRC reported in September 2002 on the work that we commissioned. The study into bio-availability is now complete, but it is still subject to peer review. When we have the advice of the chief medical officer and the chief dental officer, we will commission further research. We are not complacent about any of these issues.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about individual liberties, I understand and respect the fact that some people hold those views, but trying to cast aspersions by suggesting links between certain conditions or diseases and fluoride in the water is not about individual freedoms but about whether the facts bear out such assertions or anxieties. Although I sympathise with some of his attitudes, I do not share this one: we must keep the science separate from the fact that some people would prefer individuals to make their own decisions on this matter.

Mr. Wiggin: The Minister cited medical people as sources. Does she consider fluoride to be a medicine?

Miss Johnson: No, I do not. I assume that the hon. Gentleman is picking up on my reference to the chief medical officer. He is involved in this because it has been regarded as a public health issue. I am proud that it is regarded in that way, because it is about the dental health of our population and some of the many inequalities that exist. That is a reason for considering the matter of fluoride in water.

9.30 am

Mr. Thomas: I understand from the Minister's remarks that a further report that she requested in September 2002 from the chief medical officer and the chief dental officer on the implications of the York review for Government policy on fluoridation has not yet been received. As I explained earlier, it is of extreme concern to me, as someone who tries to follow the best scientific advice available—on, say, cloning or any other issue—that we are debating something in the Committee and in the House about which we do not have advice from the chief medical officer and the chief dental officer.

If fluoride is not a medicine, what is it? If it is added to the water supply of a large number of people, what will be the response of the chief medical officer and the chief dental officer to that?

Miss Johnson: The hon. Gentleman will know, from the many letters that I am sure I have written to him and to many other Committee members, that a medicine is defined, and that fluoride is not a medicine as it is defined; therefore it is inappropriate to call fluoride a medicine. That is the simple fact.

We are discussing the Bill today; we are not taking any decisions.

Mr. Wiggin: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. The Minister has said that medicine is defined. I have the definition that it is any

    ''substance or combination of substances presented for treating or preventing disease in human beings or animals''.

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It would be helpful if the Chair could decide whether that is a definition of medicine.

The Chairman: That responsibility is not for the Chair but for the experts. However, I am sure that the Minister has taken note of the point.

Miss Johnson: Thank you, Mr. O'Brien. We expect to get the final study very soon. We will also, I think, want to commission further research. However, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the next stage of the Bill—assuming, as one never should, that it makes the expected progress—will be regulation-making. After that there will be discussion in strategic health authority areas, and decisions on implementation will be made at local level. By that time, a great deal more information will be available.

Mr. Wiggin: I note that the Minister decided, without reading the newspapers, to respond to the hon. Member for Lewes with a little crawling. I see that the hon. Gentleman wishes to speak.

Norman Baker: It is very courteous of the hon. Gentleman to give way. The Minister may have responded on that point, but she has not answered the point that I was trying to make about private water suppliers.

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