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26 Jun 2007 : Column 45WH—continued

26 Jun 2007 : Column 46WH

Mr. Eric Martlew: Order. I understand that the Minister will not give way. Of course, it is up to the person in the Chair when winding-up speeches will start.

Dr. Howells: Thank you, Mr. Martlew. There has been confusion about this because your predecessor in the Chair said that winding-up speeches would start at 12 o’clock. They did not—they started at six minutes past 12, and the hon. Member for Teignbridge knows that full well.

Richard Younger-Ross: On a point of order, Mr. Martlew. Would you clarify that the winding-up speeches did start at 12 o’clock? I spoke for only seven minutes, and I was part of the winding-up process.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): That is not a point of order, but you started at 11.57 and finished at 12.05.

Richard Younger-Ross: Thank you, Mr. Martlew.

Dr. Howells: There we are, then: 12.05, not 12.06. Let us get back to the business in hand.

The hon. Gentleman would, of course, say that the Minister would not know, and, unfortunately, so would the hon. Member for Chichester, because there is an assumption that they have a monopoly on compassion and opposition to torture. I believe that torture is wrong in every respect, and I will fight the corner for not using it or any technique that puts an individual in a position in which, for the sake of getting intelligence or information out of them, their human rights are degraded and they are treated in an abhorrent way.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: May I again press the Minister to make a statement here today that the British Government utterly refuse, refute and condemn anything to do with what is commonly known as extraordinary rendition involving torture?

Dr. Howells: Absolutely. I give that undertaking totally. We are completely opposed to such activities. They are a violation of every international treaty that we have signed up to and of British law, and I hope that that is clear.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister clarify whether in saying that he is condemning the policy that the United States has developed during the past seven or eight years for large numbers of extraordinary renditions? Is it British policy publicly to make our Government’s dissociation from that policy crystal-clear to the Americans?

Dr. Howells: No, I am not criticising American Government policy. The hon. Gentleman assumes that the Americans are torturing people. I certainly do not have such information, but he is very clear about it. I disagree entirely.

Mr. Tyrie: Is the Minister seriously suggesting that the overwhelming body of evidence that has been produced in Washington to show that the Americans have been engaged in rendition, a policy that involves cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that amounts to torture, does not exist or has been made up? Is he
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suggesting that it is just a figment of the imagination of people on the Opposition Benches?

Dr. Howells: No, it certainly is not a figment of the imagination. Such treatment would not take place in Britain, in British prisons or in prisons that Britain is responsible for administering in any other territory.

Sarah Teather: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: Does the hon. Lady want to say something? She might as well—everybody else is.

Sarah Teather: The Minister has not answered the question. The hon. Member for Chichester asked whether such activities took place in the US.

Dr. Howells: I did answer the question. I said that we would not allow the kinds of things that we have heard about from Guantanamo Bay to take place in this country. If the hon. Lady cannot understand that, I feel sorry for her. I was very clear.

I would like to make this important point. Since before 11 September 2001, we have worked closely with the US to achieve our shared goal of fighting terrorism. As part of that close co-operation, we have made it clear to the US authorities that we expect them to seek permission to render detainees via UK territory and airspace, and that we will grant permission only if we are satisfied that the rendition would accord with UK law and our international obligations. We have explained our understanding of our obligations under the UN convention against torture and the European convention on human rights. Indeed, it was this country that moved the UN General Assembly resolution—we co-sponsored it last year. It sets out our opposition to any form of deprivation of liberty that amounts to placing a detained person outside the protection of the law.

It is dangerous to throw mud against this country as has been done this morning. Mud is being thrown. There is always a willingness, especially among members of the Liberal Democrat party, to throw mud at anything in the hope that it might stick, but it is an irresponsible thing to do. This country stands not for torture or the kinds of practices that have properly been criticised today but against terrorism. I have never yet come across a single acknowledgment of that fact, or heard a good word about the process of democracy and justice in this country.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Channel Islands (Protocol 3 to Act of Accession)

12.30 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I will allow the combatants to disperse before we start.

I am sure that many people are wondering what this issue—protocols and the Channel Islands—is about. The subject is relevant to medicinal products that are channelled through other parts of the United Kingdom, on which I will concentrate today. The protocol was put in place some 30 years ago and keeps the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey—the Channel Islands—outside the European Union, but allows free trade in manufactured items and agricultural produce between the islands and EU countries. The protocol was a fudge to try to keep Crown dependencies in place with what happens in Europe. It was signed in 1972.

I shall talk about the particular effect that the agreement has on business. The business that I will discuss today—I have also considered others—is that of vitamins, minerals, herbal remedies and food supplements. I shall also talk about how that exchange takes place and how it affects consumer protection issues in this country—England—and other parts of the United Kingdom. In considering that issue, I have talked to many different people, manufacturers’ associations, individuals and groups. The industry is huge in this country and has a lot of support.

As I have said, the Channel Islands are not members of Europe per se, but some European laws do apply. I will explain those in a minute. Our attitude to the EU directives that cover such health products has until recently been that they do not apply. In March 2007 in the other place a Minister said:

Then the Government’s view changed: first, as stated by a Minister on 2 May 2007 in the other place and then when a Minister in the other place said:

The position changed and directives that were originally thought not to apply, now seem to do so—or rather they should apply because, as I am arguing, they are not in effect at the moment. Jersey and Guernsey have undertaken to meet EU obligations and I hope that those undertakings are reliable and will eventually be acted on.

The market has been substantially affected by the failure to extend the directives. In the last decade, the turnover of Channel Island businesses dealing with such products rose from zero to around £70 million and it is increasing. Consumer protection measures are failing and will increasingly do so unless the relevant directives are applied and put into practice. There are two main reasons for that exceptional growth. One is the low-value consignment relief that enables VAT to be avoided on purchases of less than £18 and creates a
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significant price advantage for Channel Island companies. Many sectors are affected and, as I said, the health product sector is just one of those. The second reason for rapid growth is the freedom of Channel Island businesses to ignore any rules governing medicinal claims and sell, I believe, banned substances. I have seen such products advertised and sold over here.

It is a truism in the sector that claims sell products. However, it has long been the enforced UK practice that claims should be truthful and accurate and should stop short of being medicinal. Some medicinal claims in the brochures sent from the Channel Islands almost exclusively to UK consumers are deplorable. There are claims that products are good for cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia, coronary heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Those are just some of the commonplace claims. Hon Members will know the problems that have arisen in this country when effective drugs are provided through the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the Government. Those companies are exploiting that situation.

The products have not been licensed at all and there is no evidence that they work. There is a spectrum of standards and some operators are much worse than others. However, all would fall foul of the standards set by the EU directives, as the competent UK authority, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—MHRA—has said. The Channel Islands are, of course, sensitive about their reputation and want to protect their large financial services industry, but I cannot see how allowing this unsavoury practice to continue will enhance their reputation.

The position now is that the directives have not been applied to the Channel Islands. Guernsey, which has no medicines legislation, is currently consulting on a law that will not meet EU standards. Jersey has basic medicine law and proposes to discriminate against the fulfilment houses that simply provide logistics, distribution and the valuable Channel Island address. That will have no effect on the rules covering medicinal claims.

The Channel Islands sector is a problem. The chief executive officer of the MHRA wrote on April this year that the MHRA—the regulatory authority—

The recent recognition that the relevant directives should apply to the Channel Islands came as welcome relief to a UK sector that has invested large amounts to comply with the directives. It has suffered some pain in doing that and I was grateful for the recognition that the relevant directives should apply. The turnover of the UK sector has stagnated while that of the Channel Islands has gone from zero to £70 million in the last decade and is increasing, as I have said.

There appears to be no plan to introduce the directives and the Channel Islands sector continues to grow and enjoys advantages on cost, and VAT relief. It also makes medicinal claims that need to be substantiated. In some cases, those claims are false and not proven. The Channel Islands sector drives its sales
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up and avoids the extra costs with which companies on the mainland must comply as part of the European directive framework.

The various health food organisations have engaged in debate on the issue with Ministers. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), said that Guernsey was updating its legislation to address marketing issues and that Jersey has given assurances that it has taken steps when it has become aware of a problem. However, the roll-out of the directives was not mentioned.

It is incorrect to hold up the Jersey position as satisfactory, even on a temporary basis. It is also wrong to think that if Guernsey had a similar law, there would be any serious impact on medicinal claims there. In 2005-06, the MHRA referred nine complaints to Guernsey and seven to Jersey, which has responded to three of the seven. The Guernsey sector is larger, but Jersey also contributes and its current medicines legislation does not affect companies such as Healthy for Life, Life Healthcare, Woods, Prime Health Direct, Nature’s Range or Elixir of Life—a company that was subjected to what I can only describe as a roasting from the eminent Esther Rantzen on her programme. Or course, that company has since skilfully changed its name, which shows that there is a game going on regarding the issue.

The words of Dr. David Jeffs, Director of Public Health Strategy for Guernsey, are quite illuminating. He wrote,

In early 2004, it was reported that Guernsey was well advanced towards the introduction of legislation and in 2005, Dr. David Jeffs wrote to a UK consumer who had made a complaint after falling ill following taking such medicine. He said that our hope is that

The idea that it would be in place by 2003-04 has become a hope that it will be enacted much later on in 2007. I could tell many other stories about Ministers who have made such claims. I think that there is a lot of dragging of feet and somebody, somewhere, is having a laugh. No pressure is being applied to make them obey and develop the directives.

Laws that have been proposed do not meet EU standards and will have no effect on the medicinal claims, which of course is the central issue, by which I think that some people are being fooled. It is time that urgent steps were taken to extend the directives. The Government admit that, but we need to do something about it now before more legitimate businesses go to the wall and, in the worst cases, more UK consumers are duped into paying fancy prices for inappropriate, dangerously-promoted and, occasionally, illegal products. If consumers do not visit their doctors, or do, but do not get prescribed medicines, they might turn to such products.

I have some questions for the Minister: does she support the comments from the chief executive officer of the MHRA about the proposed Guernsey law? What action has been proposed to extend the directives to both Channel Islands and in what time scale? And
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how are they going to be enforced? Why has it taken so long for officials to wake up to the impact on UK businesses of the failure to apply the directives? Has the liability of Government been considered should the industry bring a legal case based on the failure to implement the directives? What discussions have taken place with the EU about the failure to implement them? In what sense, if any, does the view of the Channel Islands on implementation of the directives matter? What is the prevailing UK view?

The Minister should meet with various people from the business world and MPs concerned about such products coming on to the market and possibly inflicting a lot of harm in a lot of places.

12.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): It is a pleasure to appear under you chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on taking on this issue, obtaining this debate and on putting his case strongly. He represents a substantial head of steam and has made clearly and strongly the major points that that head of steam represents.

It would be useful to set out in a few words what protocol 3 is and the constitutional position of the Crown dependencies, not just on this issue, but generally. Protocol 3 to the treaty of Accession to the European Community governs the relationship between the Crown dependencies—the Channel Island and the Isles of Man—and the European Union. It does not govern the relationship between the UK and the Crown dependencies or between the UK and the EC. It is worth knowing that it is the Commission’s role to monitor compliance of the Crown dependencies with Community rules, by which they are bound.

I shall turn briefly to the constitutional position—irresistible for a lawyer. The term “Crown dependencies” is unique to the relationship that the UK has with those three territories. For the purposes of this debate, key points about their status need to be made: unlike the overseas territories, they are not part of our colonial past and have no representation to Government at Westminster. They are not part of the UK, but are self-governing dependencies and have their own directly-elected legislative Assemblies, their own fiscal and legal systems and their own courts of law. We are constitutionally responsible for their defence, international representation and good governance. They are not part of the European Union, but have a relationship with it.

What is protocol 3? It has been negotiated and defines the extent to which the three islands are part of the EU. Under that agreement, the Channel Islands are part of the customs territory of the Community, and common customs tariffs, levies and agricultural import measures, which apply to trade between the Channel Islands and non-member countries. So there is free movement of goods and trade between the islands and member countries, but other Community rules do not generally apply.

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