Water Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Wiggin: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does not he agree that perhaps the reason that the Government will not admit that this is a medicine is that they do not want to have a mass medication debate? They have, however, failed to give us an alternative of what they really believe it is.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman may be right. There is also the problem of trying to register as a

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medicine something that is already in the Poisons Act 1972. That would have to go to the Medical Research Council. There would have to be a huge amount of testing on the population. I am sure that he is, like me, vaguely aware of how a medicine is introduced: it must be done through peer review and must be introduced gently to the human population via review groups, and so forth. However, that has not happened. Fluoride is not accepted as a medicine. Perhaps it would be better if it was treated as a medicine and we could consider whether it has positive medical effects.

Dr. Iddon: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are certain things called trace elements that are necessary for life, such as vitamins and many minerals. Selenomethionine, for example, is a means of supplementing the supply of selenium into the body. Would he consider those to be medicines? They come under the Medicines Act 1968, but I do not think that even the Medicines Control Agency considers them to be medicines. They are trace elements that are essential to good health.

Mr. Thomas: I must be careful how I use my words—the word ''force'' comes to mind. Those trace elements are available in food and, to some extent, in the water supply, but we do not deliberately add them. As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, in this country iodine is added to salt, and a vitamin is added to flour—that is a hangover from the second world war.

Diana Organ: And margarine.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Lady may be correct.

We do not indemnify those companies against the addition of such things in our food supply, so why are we indemnifying water companies against fluoride? I think that it is because the Government know that the science is still a bit shaky. They are not 100 per cent., and they want to cover their back.

Mr. Drew: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will carry the logic through. There could be a case for the Government being asked to indemnify companies that introduce genetically modified food into the food supply. The logic of what he said could, without doubt, be followed through.

Mr. Thomas: Could be—but perhaps not on this occasion. We note in passing that the Co-op has decided not to stock GM foods. Perhaps there are individual decisions to be made.

We should not try to indemnify water companies for something that the Government are not 100 per cent. sure about in terms of scientific and medical advice. I am not convinced. The Government are trying to cover their back for what could be horrendous—and horrendously expensive—litigation processes. The hon. Member for Leominster asked about costs. We have none of the information we need to take decisions on in primary legislation.

Dr. Palmer: I want to reserve my main comments for the stand part debate. Some hon. Members have been smuggling in a stand part argument. They are saying that they are sceptical about the addition of fluoride and would not like to see the indemnity. It

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seems illogical that we will have the opportunity to vote on whether the responsibility for the addition of fluoride should pass to the health authority, but if the Government's view is followed and that responsibility is passed on, we should not indemnify the companies that we are asking to take on that responsibility. That would be grossly unfair to them. I am therefore puzzled about amendment No. 220.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Does my hon. Friend take my view that all the political parties have agreed that when the Bill goes back to the Floor of the House there should be a free vote on this clause? Is it not more appropriate to vote on that issue on the Floor of the House rather than in the Committee?

Dr. Palmer: I do not have a strong view on that. There are plenty of precedents for voting on it in Committee. However, my hon. Friend may be correct that the issue has attracted sufficient broad concern—

Several hon. Members rose—

Dr. Palmer: It seems that I am in popular demand. It might be appropriate to vote on the clause on the Floor of the House. I give way to the hon. Member for Leominster, with whom I entirely agree on motor cycles.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman on two counts. He is right to make his comments now, because there is always a risk that the clause stand part debate will not be reached. He suggests that some of us are what I might call fluorosceptics, among whose number I think he includes me, although that would not be strictly true. The purpose behind our inquiries is to find out whether the best way for the Government to achieve proper fluoridation and the benefits—

The Chairman: Order. Hon. Members are addressing one another. They must address the Chair.

Mr. Wiggin: The age group with which we are primarily concerned is between seven and 12. If the best way to achieve dental protection for that age group is through adding fluoride to the water, we must make that judgment based on the facts and figures, which we rely on the Government to supply. If, on the other hand, the Bill for indemnifying water companies is so enormous, perhaps the Government should be exploring other methods, such as giving fluoride pills or fluoride toothpaste and toothbrushes to schoolchildren. We are trying to tease that out of the Government, but they say that there is no bill. However, there must be a bill if they are going to pay for proper protection.

Dr. Palmer: The indemnity is an example of the precautionary principle at work. It would be possible for the Government to indemnify private operations against any conceivable frivolous litigation that might take place. However, in this case, we are all aware of the risk that groups who feel strongly about the issue might initiate litigation, which, even if it is unlikely to succeed, could be quite expensive. If we in Committee and on the Floor of the House consider that fluoridation is in the public interest, it would be fair to the companies that are affected to cover the cost.

Mr. Thomas: I want to put on the record, with regard to what the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy

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Tipping) said about a free vote on the Floor of the House, that following my party's annual conference this year, we will not have a free vote. We will vote against.

Dr. Palmer: I am shocked to hear of the Stalinist discipline that operates in the Welsh National party and sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, who is probably struggling with his conscience.

Norman Baker: Can the hon. Gentleman help me on one point, or if he cannot, perhaps the Minister can—assuming that she will be returning to answer some of the points raised? If, as the Minister said, water companies are already indemnified under the Water Resources Act 1991, why is the clause needed?

Dr. Palmer: I am not an expert on the interaction between different pieces of legislation, so I will leave others more expert than me to answer that question. I shall defer any further remarks to the stand part debate.

Miss Johnson: I will first address the question, by which the hon. Member for Lewes seems very excited, about why the measure is in the Bill. As I have said, section 90 of the Water Industry Act 1991 makes similar provision. The new section is a substitute for section 90 and takes account of the new procedure on fluoridation. It is as uninteresting as that.

Mr. Osborne: Is the indemnity really necessary? The Government are the guarantor of last resort in major public health issues—that is what the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said during the BSE crisis. At the time, the Department of Health provided predictions to Ministers that up to 5 million people could die as a result of CJD, and the Government would have been the guarantor if a public health catastrophe had unfolded. If fluoride turned out to be dangerous to human health and there was a widespread medical disaster, the Government would have to step in and spend an enormous amount clearing up the mess whether or not the new section was in the Bill.

Miss Johnson: Let me say in the strongest possible terms that there is no evidence of any harm to overall health from fluoride. I want to make that clear to anyone who has any doubt about it. For more than 40 years in the UK, we have had a large trial of the trace element in our water. More than 6 million people in the west midlands and the north-east already receive fluoridated water, and there is no evidence of harm to overall health as a result.

That is backed by evidence from many countries around the world. The hon. Member for Leominster did not pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), which was that the Swiss fluoridate salt. Many other countries also do that, so the population absorbs fluoride through salt consumption as well as water consumption in some cases.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Will the Minister pause to answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne)? The Government are the guarantor of last resort in all

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instances of health. If so, why is the new section needed?

Miss Johnson: I have already explained that, but hon. Members do not want to hear it. The explanation is that the water companies have asked for a level playing field on the risks that they face whether they fluoridate or not, and it is entirely right to provide that. We do not have a massive costing that suggests a huge liability. It is entirely to the contrary: there is no expected liability.

Mr. Osborne rose—

Miss Johnson: I will finish answering the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks and then let him intervene if he wants to.

There is no expected liability. Only £500 has been paid out in the past five years under the indemnity in the Water Industry Act 1991, and that covered the costs incurred by a water company in prosecuting the non-payment of one bill, which I mentioned earlier. We are talking not about £5 million or £5 billion, but about £500.

 
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