Water Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Osborne: Each Committee member will have received a host of correspondence from several organisations that are against putting fluoride in water. It is predictable that at least one, if not many, will mount a legal challenge. The Government must be forecasting that they will pay out for legal costs in the simple expectation of such legal action. I am not talking about their paying hundreds of millions of pounds because people are ill.

Miss Johnson: I have already said no, and when I say no I mean no. How many times does the hon. Gentleman want me to say it?

Norman Baker: I entirely accept the Minister's point about indemnity and the Government's theoretical position. However, following on from the Birmingham example, is it not the case that if there was a campaign of non-payment of water bills as a consequence of fluoride being added, the water companies would happily pursue cases through the courts in the knowledge that the Government would pick up the bill for the prosecution?

10 am

Miss Johnson: No, no, that is not the case. As I pointed out, there are 6 million consumers already—across swathes of eastern England, from the north-east to Essex, and in a chunk of the Birmingham area—who are already receiving fluoridated water.

Norman Baker: As the Minister told the Committee a moment ago, under the 1991 Act the only time that the Government have had to cough up money is to provide the fund for the prosecution of the water company in the case of that one individual in Birmingham. It follows that, unless the indemnity provisions in the Bill are altered, they will give an undertaking to water companies to provide funds for prosecution in the case of non-payment where fluoride is an issue. The Birmingham case could happen again. I want the Minister to confirm whether that still remains the position under the new provisions.

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Miss Johnson: We will need to discuss the exact nature of the provisions when we discuss the affirmative procedure. I was distressed by the comments of the hon. Member for Ceredigion about the scrutiny that this House provides for regulations subject to affirmative procedures. I take it that when he comes to a Committee dealing with such regulations, he does not take his responsibilities seriously or he does not think that others do so. The fact is that there is a good, solid opportunity for detailed debate when dealing with regulations subject to the affirmative procedure.

Mr. Swire: A few days ago, or even last week, before the Minister came to this Committee and illuminated us all, the Minister for the Environment talked about the large amount of debt that was owed because of non-payment of water bills. The Minister has cited the Birmingham example, but can she envisage a situation whereby others might cite the reason for non-payment of bills to be the fluoridation of their water supplies?

Will not the Government find themselves having to distinguish between those who are refusing to pay their bills on principle because of water fluoridation and those who did not want to pay their bills anyway? The Government could find themselves, on one hand, supporting the water companies' legal cases with public money, and, on the other, not pursuing individuals for non-payment, because so far they have failed to pursue unpaid water bills amounting to £700 million or £800 million.

Miss Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is one of a number of people who are using the discussion as an opportunity to try to oppose fluoride, while not being as intellectually honest as those who simply say that they oppose it for whatever reason. The attempt to manufacture shroud after shroud out of tiny tatters of cloth is feeble.

Mr. Swire: Answer the question.

Miss Johnson: The answer is that we do not envisage the problems that the hon. Gentleman outlined. I have already made that absolutely clear in response to the hon. Member for Tatton.

I was struck by the remarks that the hon. Member for Ceredigion made about his party's position on the matter; he said that he believes in individual liberties, but that his party will not have a free vote on the subject. That is interesting.

Mr. Thomas rose—

Miss Johnson: I see that I have touched a nerve. I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Thomas: I really cannot believe that I need to tell the Minister this, but in order to protect individual liberties, we sometimes have to take a stand and say that we will not legislate for measures such as identity cards or compulsory fluoridation.

Dr. Iddon: Or seat belts.

Mr. Thomas: Yes, or seat belts, but there is greater public benefit to be gained from that measure, because of its effect on other people and the health service, so that is a different matter.

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It would be better and more intellectually honest, to use the Minister's words, of her to say whether the Government are in favour of fluoridating our water supply, than to hide the measures in the Bill, which is what she is trying to do.

Miss Johnson: We are certainly not hiding the measures in the Bill. We are leaving local communities to decide. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman believes in devolution, but Labour Members certainly do. Our position is entirely consistent.

I now come to the MRC. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) for his remarks. He was entirely right in setting the hon. Member for Ceredigion straight about what I said. I had not made the connection with, or the rejection of, the York report that was suggested. The MRC was asked to advise on how the gaps in the research which the York report identified could be filled. That is the work that the MRC was asked to undertake. The York report was basically a review of the evidence, and it said that much of the so-called evidence was not very well researched, and that more work needed to be done. That is what the MRC programme is designed to do.

On the question of so-called medication, and the definition of ''medicine'' that so excites the hon. Member for Leominster, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency does not consider fluoridated water a medicine, and it is the agency responsible for defining medicine. We have to remember that fluoride is a natural constituent of all drinking water. Indeed, the bottles before us contain just under 0.02 mg per litre of fluoride.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): At 8 to 12º C.

Miss Johnson: The hon. Gentleman has been studying intently on the Back Benches, and I am delighted to see it.

Fluoride sometimes occurs naturally at much higher concentrations than 1 part per million. Some areas have had the fluoride levels in naturally fluoridated water reduced to bring the content down to the levels considered optimal and entirely safe. It is entirely natural that we take in fluoride in a variety of ways. My hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe and for Bolton, South-East remarked that it is found naturally in food, and that we need to take it in. That is why fluoride is not a medicine.

Mr. Wiggin: I am glad that the Minister has addressed the question. If fluoride is already in bottled water, why do the Government's proposals not insist that all bottled water contains fluoride?

Miss Johnson: We are not insisting that all of anything should contain fluoride. As I said earlier, we are talking about options and about the devolution of decision making to communities. That is what already happens; some communities in England already have fluoridated water, and others do not. That is how it should be.

Dr. Iddon: I just want to correct the point that I made earlier about comparing fluoride as an essential element with vitamins and minerals. I referred to vitamins and minerals as being regulated by the

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Medicines Control Agency. I apologise; I was wrong. Vitamins and minerals are regulated through food legislation. That strengthens the point that I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Ceredigion.

Miss Johnson: Indeed it does. As a Minister, I deal with vitamins and minerals through the Food Standards Agency. Can I therefore bring this interesting debate, which I am sure will be resumed on other amendments, to a close?

Norman Baker: I am still keen to know about the position of private water suppliers, which has not yet been addressed. If a private water supplier wished to add fluoride to water, would it be indemnified against any action in the way that water undertakers are? If not, is the Minister happy that the benefits of fluoride—as she sees them—will not be available to those who benefit from a private water supply?

Miss Johnson: I am not sure in what sense the hon. Gentleman uses the word ''private'', because all the companies are private.

Norman Baker: I understand that the Minister will not necessarily be up to speed with water legislation, but about 2 per cent. of suppliers are officially called ''private''. That has nothing to do with private companies, but where water is supplied by, for example, an estate. I am keen to know whether those suppliers will be indemnified in the same way as water undertakers.

Miss Johnson: Yes, the hon. Gentleman's point reflects the Government's desire for everybody to be on the same footing—to have a level playing field.

I trust that I have responded sympathetically to the issues and that hon. Members will support the Government amendment.

Mr. Wiggin: Before the Minister makes her closing comments, I want to ask her about Government amendment No. 343. I notice that it states:

    ''The Secretary of State may also, with the consent of the Treasury, agree to indemnify''.

Can she confirm that the wording does not mean that if the Secretary of State is willing to indemnify the water companies, but the Chancellor says no, the amendment would be worthless? Is the Treasury's consent needed to provide the level playing field to which the Minister referred?

 
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Prepared 23 October 2003