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5 May 2009 : Column 44WH—continued

12.43 am

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): It is a pleasure to be under your guidance, Mr. Wilshire. It is good to see you in a nice sober tie for once.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): Mr. Ainsworth, had I known it would be you, I would have worn a different tie.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) has provided me with a number of questions. I counted 10; he said that he had only nine, so I think I counted his final demand for a date as an additional question.

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the history of Devonport and the fantastic support and service that it has provided for the Royal Navy over the centuries. He is also right to discuss the importance of the employment that the naval base provides for the city and the economy of the wider area.

The hon. Gentleman’s frustration is understandable. I get it in the neck from my hon. Friends as well as from him for not being able to be clear as quickly as everybody understandably wants. All I ask is that he and others accept that I am doing my best to plough through the situation and get to a point where we can be as clear as possible as soon as possible in an enormously complicated situation. It is okay for him to refer to 22 months, but he knows—I think he acknowledged it in his speech—that an awful lot has happened in those 22 months. We have had to re-profile the carriers, for example, and the MOD equipment review has taken place. Both have affected our ability to enter into agreement and know exactly where we stand with regard to the situation at Devonport and elsewhere.

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Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) for securing this timely debate. My concern is that if a statement is forthcoming to finalise and explain exactly what is going on, we want something more than simply, “Your frigates are going to X, Y or Z.” We need to understand the evidence behind the decision. At the moment, that is not clear. What is the business case, and why does the Navy feel that the frigates need to be moved out of Plymouth?

Mr. Ainsworth: I understand that people will not accept it. I do not see why anybody as steeped in the issue as my hon. Friend would accept decisions without evidence, backup and reasoning. If decisions are taken and we attempt not to provide that evidence, I am sure that we will hear about it in no uncertain terms.

On employment, the naval base review said that we need all three naval bases, but that we need to optimise those naval bases to increase efficiency. The hon. Member for South-West Devon and others have said that they do not disagree with that in principle, but they want to know the detail. They are hearing rumours and believing stories that the situation in Devonport will be decimated. I do not see that, and I do not believe it to be true.

The first of the hon. Gentleman’s questions was whether there was some document lying around in the MOD saying that Devonport would close in 15 years. I have never seen any such document, and I am as steeped in the situation as in any other. I wind up reading the Plymouth Herald more often than the Coventry Telegraph nowadays, so I know all the stories being peddled about the situation. There is no such document or plan. I am not aware that anybody in the MOD has ever pushed the point of view—certainly not while I have been Minister—that Devonport will close within 15 years. I am completely and utterly unaware of any such information.

With regard to the employment situation, all the scenarios that we are considering lead us to believe that Devonport will have roughly the same size work force going forward as it has now. There will be no substantial change. There might be some slight decrease or increase, but there will be no substantial change in the size of the work force in Devonport in any of the scenarios that we have been considering to bring to a conclusion all the details flowing from the naval base review.

Of course, things will change over time. They cannot stay as they are. If we are to optimise the benefits of proper management of all our naval bases, things will inevitably change. The hon. Gentleman has seen change. Plymouth has changed, and has benefited from that change. It is not only an area of supply for the Royal Navy; it produces equipment such as Jackals in what were recently naval base buildings.

The hon. Gentleman must expect change. I think he knows that there will be change, but under all the scenarios that we are considering, the work force would stay roughly the same size.

The hon. Gentleman has asked a series of questions about whether decisions have been taken, when they will be taken and when they can be known about. I am not in a position to make a detailed announcement. I do not want to go to Plymouth to be mauled because I
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cannot make a detailed announcement. I would like to be able to put a bit more information into the public domain, but there are many moving parts in the situation.

We must try to reach a long-term commercial arrangement with Babcock, which is a private company. Those negotiations are worth a lot of taxpayers’ money and we cannot do or say anything that would detract from our negotiating position. We want a long-term agreement with Babcock and we expect to be able to enter into one before the end of the year. We might be able to clarify some of the issues ahead of the terms of business agreement. Two issues have to be deconflicted: I cannot confirm things if it would weaken our position in our discussions with Babcock to do so, but I want to give assurances to the local community that things will be okay in the long term.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the leak a couple of weeks ago that spoke of all the frigates moving to Portsmouth. He said that he used to be a Minister, so he knows that it would be pretty stupid for a Minister to say that a decision had not been taken when it had. There is no final decision on moving frigates from Plymouth to Portsmouth. He should understand why that is. I gave a commitment that there would be no base-porting changes for five years. That was reinforced by the Secretary of State on a recent visit to Devonport. We were trying to give people a degree of assurance that there was no imminent decision.

The hon. Gentleman knows that a future service combatant—I get criticised for using the jargon—will replace the Type 22 and Type 23 frigates in the long term. However, that is still conceptual. We have not decided how many of what kind of variant there will be. We do not know where the new ships should be based because we do not know what complexities they will have. If all future service combatants had to be based elsewhere, it would make sense to move the existing frigates to the new location so that there was not a step change with the change of ship. There has been no decision on whether all the variants of the ship will be based in Portsmouth or Devonport. The guarantee stands that there will be no base-porting changes for five years. I hope to say more about that ahead of the terms of business agreement, and I am sorry that I cannot say more today.

Linda Gilroy: Many people in Plymouth say that Portsmouth simply does not have enough room for the frigates. Will there be a proper study of whether Portsmouth can take them?

Mr. Ainsworth: If we decide that all future service combatants and existing frigates will move to Portsmouth, we will have to study that and explain it, not least to my hon. Friend. We would have to give reasons for that decision. I would not shirk from that. I accept that we would have to do that if such a decision were taken. However, that decision has not been taken. I will clarify the situation as soon as I can. I am sorry that I cannot clarify it today.

The hon. Member for South-West Devon tends to dismiss the amphibious force. The number of ships that have sailed in and out past Plymouth sound in the history of Devonport is an absolute glory. The amphibious element is an important part of our force structure and it will stay in Plymouth. I will try to reinforce the
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amphibious element in Plymouth by moving the landing craft of the Royal Marines there, along with the training. If that is possible, it will be done as soon as possible. Those landing craft could then be collocated with Ocean, Bulwark, Albion and the rest of our amphibious capability in Plymouth. That direction of travel is an important guarantee to the city. Flag officer sea training will also stay in Plymouth. Moving it has not been considered.

Mr. Streeter: The Minister has indicated that the time scale might be moving. He said he hoped that the deal with Babcock would be in place by the end of the year and that he might be able to give more information on base-porting before then. However, on a visit to Plymouth in early March, the Secretary of State for Defence—the Minister’s lord and master—said that the decision on the future of the naval base would be made within weeks. The Plymouth Herald stated at that time:

The Minister’s comments today seem to push that decision further away than the Secretary of State’s recent comments.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not trying to do that, nor am I trying to be opaque. We might make further announcements fairly soon. If we can, we will. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that the situation is not just political, but economic. The city needs to be able to plan for the future. We want to be part of that future and help the city to be successful. We must plan with the city. If I can make announcements soon, I will do so. I cannot guarantee that I will because of the complexities of the situation. I believe that I will be able to give a degree of clarity ahead of the terms of business agreement negotiations, but I am not suggesting that nothing will be said ahead of that.

It is unfair of the hon. Gentleman to say that we do not talk with the city about these things. There has been a long-standing consultation process. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) set up the strategy group that involves local businesses and the city council. We participate in it. I hope that some land will be released under Project Roundel. The hon. Gentleman should not dismiss that. Devonport naval base covers a huge tract of land. Under any scenario, much of that would not be put to good economic use for military purposes alone. Land should be released to the city so that it can make good use of it. That is what we want to do. My hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and the hon. Member for South-West Devon are constantly exploring what Government funding might be available for that.

Linda Gilroy: I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Devon that we need good quality consultation with the Department on decommissioning.

Mr. Ainsworth: There is an ongoing consultation with the city about the submarines and no decision has been taken. I do not anticipate being able to take a final decision on decommissioning until next year. However, there will be a consultation before that. We will produce a strategic environmental assessment that will go out for consultation.

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Health Food Products (Channel Islands)

1 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise my concerns about food supplements and herbal remedies being marketed in this country by companies based in the Channel Islands. This issue has been raised before, in an Adjournment debate in June 2007, by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). As the problem continues to grow, however, I felt it should be raised again. My attention has been focused on this issue by the Health Food Manufacturers Association, and my concern is shared by many hon. Members, including those who have signed my current early-day motion 152, and those who signed early-day motion 357, which I tabled in the previous Session.

Most, if not all, health food businesses based in the Channel Islands market at UK consumers food supplements and herbal remedies that either contain illegal ingredients or are marketed using claims that would be illegal if those products were placed directly on to the UK market—sometimes both. Many right hon. and hon. Members, and certainly millions of our constituents, will have received or seen catalogues that market vitamins, minerals, food supplements and herbal remedies, but while such marketing is tightly regulated in the UK, such regulation does not cover operators based in the Channel Islands. That is particularly worrying because many people in the UK assume that our consumer protection laws also cover the Crown dependencies, but that is not the case.

Some of the products marketed by Channel Island operators contain ingredients that are considered illegal in the UK, including ingredients such as DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone—I apologise for my difficulty in saying that, as I am a chemist.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): I think that we would all have trouble with that.

Dr. Iddon: I shall call it a steroid, Mr. Wilshire, which is a class C drug in this country, believe it or not. Another such ingredient, which I can pronounce, is melatonin, which is categorised as a medicine here.

Another aspect of the problem is that some products are marketed with illegal claims, including medicinal claims. The use of unsubstantiated medicinal claims is especially worrying because it targets vulnerable people. The illegal medicinal claims include claims relating to cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and diabetes. It has been claimed that probiotics

or that the product Chelogarde

Such medicinal claims are extremely dangerous, as they can discourage people from seeking proper medical advice, and so put their health at serious risk. In the UK, we have strict regulation to prevent that, and no medicinal claims may be made for products that do not hold a marketing authorisation under the Medicines Act 1968. The European Union has recently introduced a raft of directives and regulations, which apply to foods in general, that are designed to protect consumers. They include the food supplements directive and the
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regulation on the use of nutrition and health claims for foods, the short title of which—the nutrition and health claims regulation—is more widely used.

The Government are also in the process of implementing the traditional herbal medicinal products directive, which is intended to further protect consumers. The UK has implemented, or is in the process of implementing, all that legislation, with which responsible UK operators have to comply. As my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, I have serious concerns that much of that legislation is unnecessary and disproportionately burdensome on companies in the UK, but we are obliged, by our treaty obligations, to implement it.

Our Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the MHRA, and our trading standards officers, have powers to take steps against UK operators that contravene those regulations and directives, but they do not have jurisdiction in the Channel Islands. Therein lies the crux of the problem. The Channel Islands do not have similar legislation, and so companies in Guernsey and Jersey, in particular, are able to abuse the situation and market vitamins, minerals, food supplements and herbal remedies, which may contain illegal ingredients, to UK consumers using illegal claims. Clearly, operators are keen to take advantage of that lack of regulatory control. In the last decade, the turnover of Channel Island businesses that deal with such products has risen from zero to an estimated £100 million today, and the business is still growing. Meanwhile, the turnover in the UK sector has stagnated in comparison.

The problem is further exacerbated by the inequities of the low-value consignment relief, or LVCR, regime, which allows companies based in the Channel Islands to avoid paying VAT on deliveries in which the contents are valued at less than £18. I shall not go into the details of that issue, as it was raised in the House on 27 January by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean). However, the freedom to make illegal medicinal claims with impunity, combined with the price advantage generated by the LVCR regime, has led to Channel Island operators capturing a substantial share of that market in the UK. That not only poses a serious threat to UK consumers, but gravely undermines the responsible UK suppliers and health food businesses that continue to make considerable investments to comply with the law.

That unlevel playing field has arisen because the Channel Islands are not members of the EU. The relationship between the Channel Islands—as well, incidentally, as the Isle of Man—and the EU is set out in protocol 3 to the Act of accession that was annexed to the 1972 treaty of accession, by which the UK became a member of the then European Economic Community. Even though the Channel Islands are not members of the EU, some EU laws apply to them. That was confirmed in May 2007, when a Minister in the other place acknowledged:

However, despite the view that the Crown dependencies should implement the legislation in question, only limited progress has been made. The Medicines (Human and Veterinary) (Bailiwick of Guernsey) Law, 2008, received
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Royal Assent on 10 December 2008, after a protracted delay. Although the introduction of that law in Guernsey is a very positive step, it is not fully consistent with the EU medicines directive. That was confirmed by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), when she said, in response to a written question:

as it then was—

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