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This debate has been raging since I was elected in 1997, starting with vitamin B6, and coming through to where we are today. Whenever I have tabled an early-day motion on this subject or whenever I have participated in a debate on the matter, there has been cross-party liaison.
I cannot support the motion of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for one reason, much as I have sympathy with it. In my view, what the Conservatives are trying to do is practically impossible. This all started with the European elections on 10 June. Until then, the issue went across the parties. On 10 June, the Conservatives decided to bang it on their website and use this issue to recruit people. Ever since then, the Conservatives have made the issue a party political one. Since 10 June, and even before then, early-day motions have been tabled by six Conservative Members, who did not attempt to enlist the support of members of other parties, as I did when I tabled early-day motions on the subject.
I cannot vote for the motion, because the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is being party political in the run-up to a general election. I wrote to the Health Food Manufacturers Association, Consumers for Health Choice and other organisations that appeared to support the Conservatives' views during the June elections, to say that I was disappointed by the way in which the Opposition had behaved. They have wrecked the debate.
Many of my patients take supplements, vitamins, minerals, food additives and so on, and, like the significant number of my constituents who have written to me about the issue, they believe that they derive great benefit from them. That has an effect on health care, as some people would rather take over-the-counter supplements and vitamins than trouble their GP, go to casualty or phone NHS Direct. The public therefore regard the majority of vitamins and supplements as a good thingso in that sense I do not oppose their use, as they serve a useful purpose in society. However, that
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does not mean that there are no problems, and I should like to make a couple of remarks on the subject as a practising GP. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) pointed out that if supplements were not available over the counter people would resort to the internet. However, the internet is already full of drugs that should not be available in that way. I am sure that, like me, hon. Members are bombarded daily with internet adverts to buy anything from tranquillisers to drugs for erectile dysfunction and dangerous drugs to modify obesity, all of which can have deleterious effects. To say that the internet would be used as a refuge to sell supplements is a mistake, as we already have to deal with the problem. That argument only confuses the issue, and does not clarify it.
I am worried about the way in which some supplements are taken. They are rarely taken in a standardised form or dose. The scientific evidence on their effectiveness and side effects is often unclear. As a GP, I often suggest to a patient that they take a particular drug to modify their illness and they will ask whether it is all right to take it with the vitamins, minerals and supplements that they are already taking. The simple truth is that I do not have the faintest idea. Up and down the land, patients want to know whether it is all right to take supplements with the drugs that their GPs recommend for heart conditions, diabetes, blood pressure and so on, but we simply do not have the evidence.
As a scientist and someone who feels strongly that we need scientific research and data to back up the claims that we make, I believe that anything that can improve scientific knowledge about things that people take is for the best. I cannot check drug interactions with supplements and minerals, as there are not any research papers or evidence. I can check on my computer for drug interactions, but they will not show up there; I can check the established medical directories on drug interactions, but they will not be listed there. I simply do not know whether those drugs have a deleterious effect in combination with the drugs that I prescribe. If someone comes back to me with possible side effects, I do not know whether they are caused by the drug that I prescribed or by the interaction between my drug and other things that the patient is taking, and on which I have neither data nor knowledge. It can therefore be hazardous if people take those drugs in a non-standard form, or if they do not know the recommended dose. The House has legitimate concerns about that issue, which should be flagged up.
Finally, some of those minerals have side effects. I have seen at least two patients in my medical career who had taken high doses of vitamin B6certainly higher than the current recommended maximum doseand had suffered neurological side effects. Fortunately, when those two patients stopped taking vitamin B6 the side effects went away, but at the time there were worrying side effects from the doses that they were taking.
I do not wish to detain the House any further. I merely point out that there are issues, particularly as regards interactions with other drugs, which need to be considered carefully when the House makes decisions on these matters.
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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): We have had a well informed debateanother Conservative-instituted well informed debate on the subject, and we make no apologies for coming back to it. It is an important issue for many millions of our constituents throughout the country. I shall comment on the contributions that we have heard. I begin by welcoming the support given by the Liberal Democrats to the cross-party consensus on the subject. That was helpful.
As usual, I compliment the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). Supplements have done her no harm. She looks better than most of us in the House, having dabbled in them, I believe. She emphasised that there is a genuinely cross-party interest. She did not make that excellent speech just to help the Tories. As she said, she should be entitled to use whichever brand of food supplement she has chosen to use, until and unless it is proved unsafe, which has not happened thus far.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), not surprisingly, made his contribution to the debate. He is known as the hon. Member for South Holland and the Barretts, as we know. He mentioned the effect that the directive would have on minor manufacturers. They will suffer as a result of the level playing field being removed.
The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made an interesting contribution and complimented what she considered a rather modest approach in the motion. I think she would agree with us that if the motion were put to a truly free vote in the House, it would be won. If hon. Members voted as their conscience told them and as their constituents are telling them in large numbers, the motion would be passed. The hon. Lady pointed out that the debate is important because it is about a subject in which many ordinary people are interested, although they are not naturally interested in politics and the political process, so it is right that we should discuss it today.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made the perfectly reasonable assertion that tea can kill, taken out of proportion. One could also drown in it, I suppose, let alone drink the stuff. He asked in the interests of what or whom the regulations are being passed. The hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) spoke from experience, with his biology background, but he made the curious assertion that the Government had achieved a pro-choice result. In fact, it will limit the choice of many millions of people who want to continue taking the brand to which they are used. His mention of the placebo effect of all these supplements, as he claimed, is more than a little patronising to millions of people who take supplements, believe in them and experience beneficial effects.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) spoke in great technical detail. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made the extraordinary assertion that he agrees in principle with the motion and with the issue, but political considerations stand in the way of his voting for it. Finally, the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), with his experience as a GP, alluded to the problems of the internet. Even if he wanted to ban all supplements, they would still appear.
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After the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), there was a truly appalling contribution from the Minister, who failed to answer any questions about the supposed harm caused by the supplements that she is seeking to ban. She made the extraordinary Alice in Wonderland statement that this is a free country. That is not the case, of course, if one wants to continue using one of 5,000 supplements that may not be available after 1 August. She said the Government were spreading the liberal cultureby banning choice. We knew she was in hot water when she ended up on the subject of dodgy dossiers. She was completely sunk at that stage.
There is cross-party concern. The matter would not be before the House without the high-profile campaign and a great deal of hard work initiated in large part by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell. The save our supplements campaign was launched in April last year. The matter affects an estimated 41 per cent. of adults in the UK21 million consumersand an industry worth £335 million. There was a petition that gained more than a million signatures and a postcard campaign, of which all of us, as constituency MPs, have seen evidence. Health food shops in every high street in the country carried posters and took the campaign on board. As my hon. Friend said earlier, this debate comes at a crucial time, with the case before the European Court today.
"This ban is ridiculous. It is a medical fact that vitamins and minerals form a vital and necessary part of our diet. As modern farming methods involve a large amount of chemicals, these naturally occurring vitamins and minerals become less and less potent."
If the directive is allowed to go through unchanged and with the full compliance of the British Government, up to 5,000 products could be banned from 1 August this year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, if there is a real fear that items are unsafe, why do the Government not remove them from the shelves now rather than wait until 1 August? What are the dangers? We asked the Minister, but she came back with the absurd contention that we must prove the safety of an item before we have to prove its danger.
What we do know is the names of the eminent clinicians on the European Commission's scientific committee on food who have prepared the directive. If one looks at some of the individual parts of the directive, one sees that it does not raise specific implications and concerns; it raises possibilities. On the basis of those possibilities, 5,000 products are to disappear from our shelves.
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