Water Bill [Lords]

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Norman Baker: There are two points to that intervention. The first is whether one could entirely opt out, notwithstanding the comment about bottled water, because one goes through one's life drinking water in different establishments, in restaurants and in people's houses. One cannot simply opt out of water in that way.

Secondly, the more interesting philosophical point is whether the majority in a population—if it is a majority in this case, which I expect it is—has the right to impose its view on the minority.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire): It is the other way round.

Norman Baker: No, it is not. If the majority wants to compel the minority to do something, does it have the right to do that? That is an important philosophical point. As Members of Parliament, we have to listen to majority views. We do so all the time, and would not be elected if we did not. However, we are also here to defend the minority, and those who do not want something. When we pass any sort of legislation, we always have to think what the consequences are for somebody who does not want it and whether it should be imposed on them against their will.

Richard Burden: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I wonder how far he would take it. Where would he draw the dividing line between something added to water as a benefit, and something added to water to prevent what is perceived to be a danger? Somebody else might draw a different conclusion. If somebody had a deeply held, if illogical, personal conviction that chlorine in the water was dangerous and they wanted to opt out of it, would they have the individual right to do that?

Norman Baker: That is a fair question. These are difficult matters, and it is difficult to get absolute answers to them. We all have to draw lines where appropriate. There is a sensible line drawn there, between something that prevents a public health hazard, such as chlorine, and something that is not necessary to prevent a hazard but would be beneficial. There is a distinction, and it might be difficult to draw, but that is probably where I would draw the line.

Mr. Thomas: These are valuable arguments that we should always have on legislation. It is important to think these things through. However, we should also look at whether we can achieve the same aims without legislation. In this case, we can clearly achieve similar aims. People cannot add chlorine to their water after it comes out of the tap to cleanse it of bacterial substances and so on, but people can add fluoride by choice to their diet or toothpaste, or however they wish. The science shows that that has much the same effect.

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It is not a question of a minority imposing its views on a majority, because everyone has a choice. There is an alternative, and we should think about alternatives before we legislate.

Norman Baker: We need to think about alternatives in any situation. I am instinctively more comfortable—as I imagine all Committee members are—with a situation in which we can choose to have something rather than having it forced on us. That is the natural position of any MP. However, there is a question about whether the alternatives provide the same benefits and reach the same target groups, and that calculation must be made.

Mr. Simon: Is not the hon. Gentleman in danger of following the hon. Members for Ceredigion and for Leominster in multiplying six counterfactuals by seven hypotheticals and ending up with a load of waffle?

Norman Baker: That comment was a load of waffle. In my inadequate way—we are all inadequate in our own ways—I am trying to reach a sensible outcome to a difficult moral question that has health implications. I do not pretend that that is easy.

Mr. Wiggin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: I will, but I am keen to make some progress.

Mr. Wiggin: I am keen to help the hon. Gentleman make progress. The comment from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) was disingenuous, especially as he told the Committee a few minutes ago that if people did not want fluoride in their water they should buy bottled water. That is fine if people can afford it. It was an extraordinary comment from someone who is normally more rational.

Norman Baker: That is a point for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington rather than me, but the hon. Member for Leominster has made his point.

Who should decide whether to fluoridate? I have set out the philosophical difficulties that I have with the way in which the Government are moving forward, but we can be clear about who should not decide. The water companies should not decide. To that extent, I agree with the Government. It cannot be right in terms of democratic accountability to ask water companies to decide such matters. Nor is it fair on those companies to be put in the middle and to be asked to make decisions. They do not like it, and have made it perfectly clear that they are happy to be taken out of the equation. I hope that we are on common ground on that.

I am slightly alarmed by the Conservative suggestion that the water companies could decide, not least because dangerous ideas from the Conservative party tend to end up in Labour party manifestos five years later. I hope that that will not happen on this occasion.

There are complications about who should decide. Later, we will have a discussion about local authorities and health authorities, but I would like to place on the record my view that health authorities should not decide such matters. They are perceived as having an agenda—whether they do or not—and as being biased

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and as looking after the health aspect. Health authorities are doing their duty and trying to further the health of the population, but they do not have an agenda for civil liberties, or for locality and accountability in the way that local councils do. If we are to have a decision-making process, people must feel it is fair and want to sign up to it. If they do not get the result that they want on what for some people are terribly important issues, they must at least feel that it has been a fair process. They will not feel that if health authorities are involved.

The other point is that health authorities are not local. The Minister keeps saying that they are, but they are not. Surrey and Sussex health authority represents my area, but it is not local at all. It is not even based in Sussex, so what can it know about what happens in Lewes? That is apart from the fact that it has only just been set up and has not yet got its feet under the table. A local decision is not the same as a sub-regional decision.

Whoever takes the decision—the health authority, the local council or whatever—there is still the complication of boundaries. Water supply boundaries are not the same as health authority boundaries, local council boundaries or any other boundaries. Whatever the body mentioned in the clause happens to be, we will be asked to take a decision that may cross over the boundaries of two water companies. I do not know how that will be dealt with. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when she responds.

11 am

The amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion seek to do two things. First, they suggest that the Secretary of State, as a matter of principle, should fund any consultation. I believe that that is right: this is a national issue, and the funding should come from the centre rather than from health authorities, councils or any other body. Hon. Members may disagree, but that is our position.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, amendment No. 158 suggests that the process of adding fluoride to water can be undertaken and concluded only if public opinion is ''clearly in favour'' of such an addition. That is not 90 per cent. in favour, by the way, but ''clearly in favour''. It is important that more than a bare majority are in favour for reasons of accountability, which I mentioned a minute ago, and for the acceptability of the result. The process must be seen to be fair, consultative and exhaustive.

Hon. Members mentioned referendums. I hope, by the way, that Hansard writes referendums, not referenda, when it reports my comments. As far as I can tell and unless I have misread it, the Bill contains no guarantee of a referendum, only regulations made by the Secretary of State. This consultation process, which would be conducted by health authorities if the Government had their way, could therefore simply be one of those farcical arrangements of the sort that we had when NHS trusts were set up, whereby the health authority calls a meeting in a draughty village hall on a Thursday evening, puts a notice in the local paper that

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no one notices, three people come along to harangue the person holding the meeting, and the health authority declares that consultation has taken place. We must be given a much clearer explanation of what consultation means, and this should be given earlier, rather than later, in regulations. That is key.

Dr. Palmer: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we need referenda—or referendums, as the case may be—or is he merely saying that he would like a little clarity?

Norman Baker: I am saying that I do not want a facility in the Bill that could lead to the addition of fluoride to water. That is my view, not my party's, and I shall vote against such a provision on Report as a matter of individual liberty. Notwithstanding that—without prejudice, as it were—if the Government are going to go ahead with the proposal, it is very important that the consultation process is as I described. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned voting on consultation on Report. It is important that the Minister gives some indication of the form of that consultation.

Lastly, this is an issue of individual liberty and it is of significant magnitude for some people. We should not underestimate how strongly some people feel, and that strength of feeling should be respected. Does adding fluoride to water cause harm? I suspect not, but the jury is still out. There is the issue of brittle bones, which hon. Members have mentioned. It is probably safe, but I am not 100 per cent. convinced, and the York review said that further research was necessary.

 
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