Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Several hon. Members rose—

Miss Johnson: No, I want to wrap up and give other Members a chance to join the debate.

We cannot be complacent. Do we want to be safe, or do we want to be wise after the event and sorry about it?

Mr. Gale: Or arrogant?

Miss Johnson: The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) alleges arrogance. Telling consumers that they can safely go on consuming products about which there is a lack of evidence is arrogance in the extreme.

The matter used to have all-party support. There was co-operation and working together, which best served consumers and the companies. It is a shame that that historic all-party support has been broken down by the Tories, who seem keen to try to use the issue for their own political ends. I was interested to hear about the website contact on which the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) commented.

We have a clear message, which is to protect consumers. We are proud of that. By acting to produce dossiers the industry can make sure that consumers continue to receive the products. We are happy to continue to work with the industry to try to achieve that in as many cases as possible.
25 Jan 2005 : Column 241

5.19 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The Lib Dems will support the motion, but it was strange and even sad that although the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) began his speech by talking the language of cross-party consensus, he then, within a few sentences, provoked party differences for polemical reasons. I do not think that that will help the food supplement case at all. [Interruption.] Anyone who wishes to perpetuate such an atmosphere and who does not like a consensus can carry on. We will try to argue the case further without xenophobia, anti-Europeanism, ulterior motives or undue hysteria.

In most advanced countries, it has been found necessary to regulate the supply, sale and production of foods and medicines. The rationale for that approach is broadly easy to grasp. Both food and medicine are generally good for us, although both have the potential to be toxic at times. Thus, most advanced states, including ours, have regulatory bodies and regulations for foods and medicines. The object of most such regulations is to set minimum safety levels for consumers and patients, and to ensure that people avoid polluted food and quack and dangerous medicines, both of which proliferated in the 19th century. Most of such regulation has the thrust of being fairly minimal in its effects, because at the end of the day, not all the effects of all foods can be known in advance. I learned very recently that the toast that I have been consuming for years is positively dangerous to me. Ultimately, nothing is safe if it is taken in excess quantities, not even water.

All such regulation is always complicated by the fact that the distinction between food and medicine is as an absolute. Both are usually ingested, but food is nutritional while medicine changes a bodily state and is usually not nutritional. None the less, both are chemical in their effects, and the effects of food are never simply nutritional. Good food contains other beneficent ingredients, including vitamins and minerals, which act on the body and can be separated out as food supplements, and which are, indeed, one of the bones of contention in this debate.

None the less, the case for regulating what is ingested within any market, whether it is the European or the national market, is fairly strong, broadly speaking. Such regulation is there to provide consumer protection and information, and so inform consumer choice. In a pan-European market—that is what we have: the single market, as set up by Lady Thatcher in 1986—the same case can also be made. I remind hon. Members that there is a debate about supplements and rules about them not only in Europe, but in the United States. Anyone who uses the web and puts the words "Save our supplements" into the search engine will be guided to an American debate that follows similar parameters to those of the debate that we are having here.

A similar debate rages overall, but the nub of the issue is how regulation should be done. In passing, I may say that most of the debates of a European nature that we have in this country stem not from recent legislation, but ultimately from the Single European Act. In one sense, the European Union approach is precautionary. It allows nation states to uphold existing bans and sets safety hurdles for existing and new products. Clearly, the objective is relatively simple—to ensure that products of a doubtful provenance or about which
25 Jan 2005 : Column 242
individual nations have doubts are not freely traded. As the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell pointed out, however, the approach is not permissive. It does not allow products that individual nations have no doubts about to be consumed in those nations whether they get over the EU international trade hurdles or not.

The argument against such a permissive approach is very weak. One could say—I suppose that this is a counter-argument—that tolerated remedies in one nation would easily leak on to the European market anyway, but as other hon. Members have pointed out, there is a far greater danger that unregulated substances of all kinds will get into people's homes via the internet, by international courier or whatever. There also seems to be a backstop in so far as EU regulations, as I understand them, allow individual nations to add their own bans or requirements on top of those regulations. In any case, is it not intrinsically unlikely that what is tried and tested in one country over ages will wreak havoc in another?

Although many traditional remedies may be ineffective, they represent a kind of forgotten wisdom, which mainstream science sometimes rediscovers at a later date. The history of medicine is littered not only with errors, but with bouts of forgetfulness and remedies that are neglected and forgotten over time. It seems to me that dogmatism in medicine rarely pays—a point that is emphasised by the history of herbal medicine. A further argument against discouraging diversity is that that suits the major drug and pharmaceutical companies and suppliers, who work to huge economies of scale, just as it harms small suppliers and producers.

Not standing up for the principle of national diversity is one of the sins that one can lay against the Government and their approach, but it is only one of their sins, and it may not be their major one. Their major sin was to agree to such an unnecessarily burdensome directive. The Liberal Democrats voted against the directive in Europe, largely because it outlaws 300 nutrients and nutrient sources that are already on the British market, which have had nothing proved against them and do very little harm.

The directive sets onerous and perhaps unsupportable burdens—we may debate how unsupportable those burdens are—and a timetable for listing nutrients. It also ventures into the issue of current dosage without making a fair case—a point to which other hon. Members have already alluded. Worse still—my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) made this point—other EU directives threaten to broaden the definition of medicinal products in such a cumbersome way that it may include not only food supplements, but ordinary beverages such as diet cola.

Food supplements are not an easy area in which to operate, and, at the very least, the Government can be fairly accused of not robustly defending the interests of consumers and health food producers in this country. At the worst—the health industry has made this accusation—the Government have acted shiftily.

The Liberal Democrats will support the motion as it stands. The save our supplements campaign and the health food industry, which is lobbying so effectively and so hard, should take note that a cross-party consensus exists and it works to the advantage of many.
25 Jan 2005 : Column 243
However, the save our supplements campaign has tied itself closely to the Conservative campaign, which necessarily fails to maximise support for a cause that can be rationally, forcefully and fairly argued.

5.27 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I am pleased to be associated with this cross-party motion, although this is an Opposition day. I am also pleased that the Opposition have decided to use the time to debate the matter. If they had not done so, we would not have had a chance to discuss the matter and vote on it in the main Chamber before some of the bans are introduced. I am pleased that the Liberal Democrats support the Opposition motion. I do not know why they have not put their names to it, but I am pleased that they support it, because it is a genuine cross-party motion.

If there were a free vote today, many of my hon. Friends would support this motion, which is very reasoned. One or two of my hon. Friends attacked me by saying that I am, "just helping the Tories." I am not just helping the Tories—indeed, I am not helping the Tories at all. I am speaking on behalf of the millions of people who have been treated shabbily since the House began to consider the measure.

I was one of the original members of the Statutory Instrument Committee that considered the directive. Being a fairly honest person, I told my Whip that I would vote against it. I was, of course, immediately removed from the Committee, as were a number of other hon. Members—only three of the eight original Labour members of the Committee remained at its conclusion.

We ended up in a rather funny situation, with one Member rushing into the Committee at the last minute because he had only just been told that he was on it, and another, who had not got round to telling the Whips that he would vote against, being replaced by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who voted against anyway. Despite all those efforts by the Whips, it went through only by eight votes to six, having already been defeated in the Lords a few weeks before. It is important for people in the country to realise that the means by which a measure goes through the parliamentary procedures are not necessarily very democratic. We now have one last chance to make clear to the Government our view that this matter has not been at all well handled.

The hon. Members for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and for Southport (Dr. Pugh) made very good speeches, and I do not want to repeat what they said. I cannot understand how we have got ourselves into this situation. I cannot understand why our Ministers and officials did not stand up more vigorously in Brussels for people who want to be able to continue to use such supplements. I cannot understand why other countries in the European Union manage to secure derogations to get out of doing things, yet we in this country always seem to go along with whatever it is, pretend to put up a bit of a fight, or even do so genuinely, and then lose and give in. We are in a similar position with the directive on working at heights, in that we have ended up saying that something that was intended to apply to
25 Jan 2005 : Column 244
the construction industry will apply to mountaineering sports, while other countries have simply ignored it and carried on regardless.

The food supplements directive is a classic example of the way in which Europe is becoming further and further removed from the ordinary experiences and everyday lives of our citizens. That is why I am looking forward with huge pleasure to the referendum on the constitution, when I hope that we will get much of this debate out into the open.

Next Section IndexHome Page