I beg to move,
That this House
regrets the passing of the Food Supplements Regulations (England) 2003;
mandates the Government to use the UK Presidency to renegotiate the Food Supplements Directive with the European Union;
and indicates a willingness to repeal the regulations if the renegotiation does not reach a satisfactory compromise to protect the interests of consumers and manufacturers in the United Kingdom.
We move from the sublime to the ridiculous. The Government want us to drink alcohol at all hours but not to take vitamin tablets. The motion deals with an issue that affects millions of our constituents and gives Parliament an opportunity to send a firm message to the Government about our views and to make it clear that the House, not Ministers, is the ultimate arbiter of what happens in this country.
Our debate is not a conventional Opposition day debate and the motion is cross-party. Subject to catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Kate Hoey will join me in supporting it. We aim to send the Government a message that the issue is beyond party politics, that hon. Members of all parties share our concerns and that it is time to do something about it.
We know that our concerns are not confined to the Opposition or to Government Back Benchers. The Leader of the House, who is not in his place for the debate, sought to explain his party's poor performance in the European elections by citing concerns about the very subject of our debate. In an interview with The Observer just after the elections, he said that Labour would tackle over-regulation from Brussels,
"which is just seen to be prying into nooks and crannies of life", and cited the decision to ban popular vitamins and herbal remedies such as echinacea. He said:
"I think there is unnecessary interference in, for example, dietary supplements and food supplements and herbal remedies".
I agree with him and so do the majority of hon. Members.
The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that the Leader of the House, Mr. Hain, while wearing his other hat as Secretary of State for Wales, has called on the National Assembly to provide for GPs to be able to prescribe vitamins. He is therefore doubly caught by the motion and his opposition to it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right. In a recent article, which was published in Wales, the right hon. Gentleman said:
"In years gone by the benefits of complementary medicine were derided, its proponents regarded as weirdoes, swimming against a tide of conventional medical opinion. But today there is an increasing recognition that both sectors can coexist, with the patient the winner."
Sadly, under the directive, the patient is not the winner. Given those sentiments, why on earth has the Leader of the House put his name to the Government amendment? Its words are extraordinary. In it, the right hon. Gentleman
"congratulates the Government on successfully negotiating a final text of the Directive that works in the interests of UK consumers and industry".
No one who knows about the issue believes a word of that. It is nonsense.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have gone completely astray on this issue, while the manufacturers and the people of this country are writing to complain about the restrictions that are now hindering their liberties?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am at a loss to understand why this is happening. I cannot see why the Government are so blatantly ignoring the wishes of the people, but the reality is that they are. I hope that they will change their mind today.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a classic example of the nanny state gone wild? Given whatever minor risks might be involved in using these vitamins, if people are given the choice whether to use them through illustrations on the packaging, it should be a matter for them to make the decision, especially as there is precious little evidence of any harm befalling the user.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which makes it all the more disappointing that, when I approached all the different political groups in the House to sign this motion, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman refused to do so.
Dr. Pugh needs to understand that the motion before us today has been signed by representatives of all the other parties. His own party's health spokesman was invited to be a signatory to it when it was tabled as an early-day motion, but he declined to do so. That speaks for itself.
This matter is another clear example of Ministers saying one thing and doing another, and just not listening to the people. What about the hundreds of Members on both sides of the House who have signed early-day motions on this issue? What about the hundreds of thousands of their constituents who have signed letters or petitions to the House? Even close friends of the Prime Minister have come out against this directive. This morning, I went to Downing street with Carole Caplin, his former adviser, carrying a letter that had also been signed by his friend Jenny Seagrove saying that enough was enough. It is time to stop this unwanted measure.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being very generous. Is he aware, however, that in certain doses, vitamin A can be fatal, and that recent research on vitamin E suggested that it could cause cancer at high dosage levels? Does he agree that we need to investigate some of these products to ascertain whether they be safe?
The hon. Gentleman is talking about products that are on sale in this country as we speak. If the Government believe that they are dangerous, they have the power to remove them from the shelves tomorrow. I have challenged the Government again and again to do that if they believe that the products are unsafe, but they have not done so. I can only assume, therefore, that they are indeed safe for consumers to use. The hon. Gentleman's argument is therefore completely invalid.
During my hon. Friend's trip to Downing street, was he able to throw any light on why this Labour Government are so keen to stop these health products being available on the market at the same time as they are decriminalising cannabis and being madly in favour of legalising all-hours super-casinos and all-hours binge drinking?
The only explanation that I can come up with is the Government's determination to follow the European harmonisation agenda at all costs. There is no other rational explanation for this.
The hon. Gentleman touched briefly on another perspective when he mentioned the views of the industry that produces these products. Would it intrigue him to learn that not all those manufacturers feel the same way as he does about this? Instead, they are looking much more closely at the opportunities that will be provided by the wider European market that will be opened up by the regulations.
The hon. Gentleman has, of course, been a vociferous opponent of the directive in the past. I would say to him that we should not pursue the interests of big business at the expense of the small manufacturers and retailers that stand to lose out, or at the expense of the consumers who stand to lose the products that they have used for so long.
What are those products? Why is this issue so important? On
The Government will say to us that the disappearance of those products is not inevitable, and that their manufacturers can submit a dossier that, if approved by the European authorities, will allow them back on to the approved list. The Minister will no doubt also tell us that the Government have secured a derogation until 2009, to give manufacturers the chance to put together dossiers. What they will not tell us is that they have already started to gold-plate that process. Nor will they tell us that the cost of putting together those dossiers amounts to tens of thousands of pounds each, and possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds—not in total but for each one of the 277 missing ingredients—which means a total cost of tens of millions of pounds to an industry made up largely of small businesses. I also suspect that they will not admit that the industry says that producing such dossiers is economically viable in only a handful of cases. For millions of vitamin users,
Is not there a certain historical echo with the time when Lord Rooker, who then had responsibility for this matter, banned vitamin B6 as a result of some committee of wiseacres suggesting that he should? The outcry from millions of people, foreshadowed by several Members on both sides of the House, made the Government finally reverse that ban, as that vitamin is essential to many people's health.
My hon. Friend is right. He highlights the fact that good information for consumers is highly desirable, but draconian decisions by Government are definitely not.
We will therefore end up with a position in this country whereby it will be legal for a teenager to go out and buy a packet of cigarettes, which cause cancer, and yet it will be illegal for an adult to go out and buy vitamin tablets. That is completely and utterly absurd. The Government claim that all that is being done in the name of consumer safety. Again, I invite the Minister to stand up in the Chamber today and name any one of those 277 nutrient sources that is dangerous and should not be on the market.
I am happy to respond to that. I would like to throw a challenge back. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what evidence there is that many of these things are safe?
As expected, there is no answer to my question. The Government are doing what the directive does—contravening the principles of justice in this country. In this country, traditionally, one has been innocent until proven guilty. The Government are saying to consumers and manufacturers of such products that they are guilty until proven innocent, which is not good enough.
It may help my hon. Friend in formulating an answer to the Minister to tell him that more people die of the effects of aspirin every year than ever do from vitamin supplements?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we consider causes of death, prescription drugs have terrible side effects, as well as bringing substantial benefits to our society. There is no evidence that vitamin tablets cause adverse health effects to anything like that extent.
Given the Minister's response to my hon. Friend's invitation to her to stand up and demonstrate her knowledge on the subject, is he as alarmed as I am that she indicates that she does not know, as she asks the Opposition to provide such information, but she is quite prepared to trust the Brussels machine, with its lack of knowledge?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government's position is completely untenable on this matter, but they continue to pursue it, to the fury of consumers around this country.
Given that there are 277 nutrients on the excluded list, presumably a fair number are approved. Perhaps my hon. Friend will ask the Minister whether full tests have been applied to the many hundreds of thousands of nutrients currently on the approved lists—or is it that, as my hon. Friend suggested, we have simply given in, cravenly, to the power of the EU and one or two large commercial organisations in other EU countries which are trying to drive this agenda forward?
My hon. Friend is right. It is not entirely clear how the line was drawn between approved and unapproved: certainly there are no scientific documents to back up the decisions that were made. It has been a bizarre process, illogical and unsubstantiated—but the line has been drawn, and those products that are on the wrong side of it are banned. That is simply not acceptable.
Do not even the exchanges that have taken place so far make it clear that there is a fundamental difference between the two sides of the House? We are prepared to make a commitment. Not only would we want to renegotiate the directive, but if those in Europe did not listen to us or refused to take account of our views, we would legislate on our own account in line with our ability to enact any legislation that is expressly and unambiguously inconsistent with European legislation if we so wish, as an act of political will and to underline the sovereignty of this House.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The text of the motion is clear and unambiguous. It seeks renegotiation, because renegotiation is the right option. We do not want confrontation with our European partners. We simply want to go back and say "This is not right for us." My right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood, the Opposition spokesman on deregulation, has made it absolutely clear that our policy is to renegotiate, challenge and seek to reverse the directive. We will go into the forthcoming general election wholeheartedly with that policy, and I hope Members in all parts of the House will do the same. I hope that they will demonstrate their commitment to getting this measure reversed.
My hon. Friend did not quite answer my point. Is he giving a commitment that we will legislate ourselves if we have the opportunity to do so as a result of winning the general election, so that we can rectify the legislation on our own terms, unilaterally, if we have to?
I do not expect us to fail in our negotiation as and when we take office. We will succeed. Let us go back to Brussels, let us tell Brussels what works for this country, and let us demonstrate the sort of political leadership that has been woefully absent among Ministers in the past couple of years.
It does not end there, though. The directive does not just set out an approved list of nutritional sources that can be used in vitamin products, it paves the way for the introduction of what are called maximum permitted levels for vitamin tablets. Members who have followed the debate know what a threat to consumers that represents.
The rules on maximum permitted levels will limit the strength of vitamin tablets in this country. There are issues connected with the strength of vitamin tablets, and if we could be certain that the decision would be based purely on safety grounds, Conservative Members—indeed, probably all Members—would accept it, but we know that that may well not be the case. We have a very different tradition in this country. Our vitamin tablets have always contained a much higher dosage than those in many other European countries, where the dosage may be a tiny fraction of ours. Italy and Greece, for instance, have entirely different interests when it comes to deciding vitamin levels.
I have here a tube of typical fizzy vitamin C tablets that might be taken for a cold during the winter. In this country they tend to contain 1 g of vitamin C, as these do, but in another European country the level might be a tiny fraction of that. If this measure does what it seems it will do, this tablet that I am dropping into a glass of water will become illegal in 12 to 18 months. That is madness: it cannot be right for consumers in this country.
The Commission wants common standards across Europe. What it actually wants is Euro-vitamin pills, available for sale throughout the single market. It intends to set out by 2006 the rules that member states will have to apply. I have been to Brussels, and have discussed with officials what is likely to happen. They say that they hope safety will be the guiding principle, but they also recognise that the challenge is rather more complex, because the issues are very different in other countries. In terms of what will happen next, Members do not need much imagination to guess where the smart money lies. The provision has to go to a committee and be agreed by countries such as France and Germany. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment is already saying that it wants vitamin C doses to be limited to 225 mg—less than a quarter of the strength of a typical tablet in this country. It wants to cut the content of zinc tablets to one tenth the level that our own Food Standards Agency says is acceptable.
My hon. Friend has filled me with depression. The other day, I had a bad sore throat and took a large dose of vitamin C and zinc. By the following morning, I was absolutely back to scratch and was able to fight off the cold.
My hon. Friend is right to be depressed, because if this measure is fully enforced he will no longer be able to take the tablets that he and millions of other consumers have got used to taking.
The German Federal Institute of Risk Assessment and the German Government are of course free to take decisions on what is right or wrong for German consumers. That is none of this Parliament's business, but it is surely Parliament's role to take decisions about what is right and wrong for British consumers.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. Surely if ever there was a case to put to the test the concept of subsidiarity, this is it. Why on earth are individual countries not qualified to take such decisions for themselves? I hope that my hon. Friend will mention at some point in his speech—if we give him the chance to complete it—www.conservatives.com, where people can sign up by email to the campaign to save these health foods. If they visit that website, they will also doubtless imbibe its many other beneficial features.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention; I hope that those listening to this debate will take his advice and look at that website. He is right about the principle of subsidiarity, which I will discuss in a moment.
This issue also affects business, so given his responsibilities it should concern the Minister for Energy and E-Commerce, who is here to speak in this debate. According to the Government's regulatory impact assessment document, the measure will cost jobs. It says that the Government were told by companies and trade associations that the associated costs would be onerous; indeed, according to one business, the measure could have a severe effect on its competitiveness and could ultimately lead to its going out of business. The document also says that the Government were told that, at best, companies would be forced to discontinue a wide range of products, and that the resulting cost would constitute a considerable loss to any company, but particularly to a small and medium-sized enterprise. The Government were further told that, at worst, some businesses might no longer be viable.
How much evidence do the Government need to realise that this measure will cost jobs? Why do they believe it fair that companies that have been selling such products in this country perfectly legally for many years will suddenly find on
Do we really believe that there will be European harmonisation? What evidence is there that other Governments will introduce this measure? Let us consider the example of Greece. There, vitamins have always been tightly controlled; indeed, they are sold in pharmacies. Do we really believe that following this measure's introduction, the Greeks will change their practice, the market will suddenly be thrown open and vitamins will be sold in local supermarkets? We might believe that, but the Greeks do not. According to contacts in the industry in Greece, they are not going to change the way that they do things.
My hon. Friend is being very generous. Of course, the reality of our treaty-bound relationship with the European Union is that under those treaties, we do not have mutual recognition of goods and services; rather, we have the vertical integration of harmonisation bound by treaty. Whatever Greece, France or Italy do is almost academic, because such countries can start infraction proceedings against us if we do not comply with any European statutory instrument.
My hon. Friend will doubtless agree that our Government's spinelessness in challenging the European Commission on these issues is disappointing. Many other Governments are willing to challenge the Commission when their interests are at stake, and it is about time that ours started doing the same.
What have the Government done to try to prevent this situation from arising? I am afraid that the answer is, precious little. Ministers have led consumer groups and the industry up the garden path on this issue. A year ago, I urged the Minister responsible for public health to discuss the problem with the European Commission to see whether the impact of the directive could be mitigated. She promised the industry that she would intervene with the Commissioner, but nothing happened. She was asked again, and still nothing happened. In the end, I went to see the Commissioner myself. If Her Majesty's Government could not be bothered to do that on Britain's behalf, Her Majesty's Opposition could.
I discussed the problem with the Commissioner and his officials. They listened carefully, but told me that our conversation should have been held two years previously. I hope that Ministers will say why that conversation was not held two years previously. Where were the Government, when they still had the chance to make a difference? How many times did Ministers intervene to try to improve the directive? Did they instruct our embassies in European capitals to make representations to our European partners? What did they do?
I became Opposition health spokesman in 2002. I remember having a meeting with the Food Standards Agency, and being told that we had secured the best deal available. However, it was a pretty poor deal.
Not much has changed. As we hold this debate today, the European Court in Strasbourg is considering a case brought by the industry in this country that argues that the directive is illegal. Did the Government back the case, and encourage it? No, they did not. I discovered that they were not enthusiastic about the case, but instead entered a submission that was both clear and stark. They argued that the directive was proportionate and a good starting point, and that it was consistent with the principles of subsidiarity. What a betrayal of British consumers.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem goes wider than the directive? It also relates to the amendment to the directive on pharmaceuticals that widens the definition of a drug, and to the directive on traditional herbal medicinal products. Limiting competition is very much in the interests of large pharmaceutical companies.
I have studied the matter, and the lesson that I have learned is that our Ministers seem to leave jobs like this to their officials. They are not willing to take a lead themselves, which means that our businesses and consumers are bound to suffer.
I want to give the Minister a chance to rebut a wicked rumour that is in circulation. It has been suggested that the submission to the European Court was not seen by Ministers. I should be very happy to give way to the Minister if she wants to correct me and state that that rumour is wrong.
I rise to help my hon. Friend. The ghastly truth is that, despite pressure, the Department of Health flatly refused to see anyone—manufacturer or colleague—about this subject until the summer of 2002. On
My hon. Friend makes a valuable contribution, which demonstrates the complete absence of leadership in this matter.
The most revealing response to questions about the directive from hon. Members came when the Government told my hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie, in September 2003, that the UK had no choice about implementing the food supplement directive because of our obligations under the European treaty. That shows a blind acceptance that there was no alternative to the directive.
However, other countries do not take that approach. They are willing to challenge the Commission, and have done so on many occasions—in respect of the sale of British beef, for example, or the payment of subsidies to large companies, or the stability and growth pact. Why are we always too spineless to say no?
That is what the motion is about. No one wants to break treaty obligations, and we all want a constructive relationship with our European partners, but that is not a reason for blindly accepting changes that will have such a negative effect on the people whom we represent. They do not want those changes, and it is time for us to say, "Enough!"
The motion would not repeal the food supplement directive, but it would instruct the Government to renegotiate it. It expresses a willingness to repeal that and other such directives if our European partners do not work with us to find a better way. We could, for example, simply apply the directive to international trade and have a derogation for in-country sale of products. We could expand the approved list to include the missing nutrients. A variety of things could be done, with political will and leadership. We could secure amendments to the directive and ensure a better deal for British manufacturers and consumers, especially when this country holds the presidency of the EU.
If the Government will not seek to amend the directive, it is time that this House made its voice heard. It is here in the House—not in Downing street or in the Department—that the power to decide lies. It is for us to decide whether we are willing to accept or tolerate measures that the people we represent do not want. I have no doubt that in an unwhipped vote the measure would not have been passed by the House in the first place. In an unwhipped vote tonight, it would certainly be comprehensively rejected. The challenge now is for Labour Members. Whom do they represent here? Are they here to do the will of the people? No Labour Member can be in any doubt about what people outside really think. Now is our chance to start the process of getting rid of this unwanted directive. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there waiting for us to do just that. They are waiting for Labour Members to back this motion. If they do not, those hundreds of thousands of people will be ready to pay them back.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"congratulates the Government on successfully negotiating a final text of the Directive that works in the interests of UK consumers and industry by ensuring that products are safe, properly labelled, and can be freely traded across EU member states;
notes that UK legislation gives maximum flexibility that ensures that as many products as possible can continue to be marketed after the Directive comes into effect on 1st August, and that all of the vitamins and most of the minerals currently on sale in the UK will still be available;
agrees with the Government's assessment that re-opening discussion on the Directive at this point runs the risk of making its effects more restrictive and is thus against UK interests;
and welcomes the Government's continued commitment to working with the industry on assessing the safety of individual food supplements, and to facilitating negotiations with the European Food Standards Agency."
I warmly welcome this opportunity to discuss the Government's approach to legislation concerning the safety of food supplements and to defend the measures designed to protect and enhance consumer safety. I shall start with the history of the issue, because Opposition Members appear to have conveniently forgotten some of it. At the time the directive was signed, the industry recognised that it was the best achievable deal and it supported the UK's voting in favour of the directive. More specifically, three trade associations support the signing of the directive by the UK—the Health Food Manufacturers Association, the Council for Responsible Nutrition and the Proprietary Association of Great Britain.
I will come on to the history of what has happened and the issues that do and do not face us at present, but what I have told the House is accurate. The HFMA supported the UK in voting in favour of the directive at the time. The hon. Gentleman has as much responsibility for explaining that contradiction as I do.
I can confirm what my hon. Friend says. I have a major manufacturer in my constituency who knew of my intellectual concerns about the proposal and took the trouble to contact me to say that they wanted to see it adopted.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. It ties in neatly with the point that I am about to make. The larger food supplements companies supported the directive and saw it as a commercial opportunity to expand their market across the EU—now enlarged.
The Minister mentions the interests of industry, but what about patients? My son suffered from chronic earaches, for which conventional medicine offered antibiotics, which have been clinically shown to break down resistance in the long run. Through a programme of high quality vitamin supplements—the kind that will be banned in future—and herbal medicines, he has been completely cured. The patients must come first.
Those remarks very well illustrate the point that there is apparently huge confusion among some Members about the nature of the directive and where we are with its implementation. Nothing need be banned, and nothing is currently banned. The hon. Gentleman's points about vitamin supplements—
There is nothing whatever about dose levels, and I shall come to that point in a moment. Chris Grayling was scaremongering. There is nothing about dose levels in the public domain, and the European Food Safety Authority has not yet opined on the subject of dosage. There is nothing on which to base any argument about dose levels.
We cannot be disingenuous in the House. The Minister knows perfectly well that submissions for a legion of products will not be made within the European Union deadline and that those products will not be available. It is simply not cost-effective and worth while to make submissions for many of those products. Therefore, they will not be available.
The hon. Gentleman is either being disingenuous himself or his brain is not working as well as I had hoped it might work. [Interruption.] I was being a little humorous, but the House will forgive me. His point is about the ingredients and the composition of products, not about dosage. That is a different matter and was raised a moment ago. I was dealing with it, but I shall come to the question of ingredients shortly.
I have already outlined business and industry support for the directive. The House will be interested to know that Which?, the magazine of the Consumers Association, which has many hundreds of thousands of members, supports the directive. The Consumers Association publication "Food Supplements—What the new EU legislation means for UK consumers" said that it
"considers that the legislation" on food supplements
"will mean that consumers will at long last have proper protection in a growing market that up until now has been poorly controlled . . . instead of having a negative impact, as has been suggested" by the industry,
"the new legislation will mean that at long last consumers will be in a position to use supplements that are safe, of the quality they would expect and have far more information about what they contain and how much to take".
Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is no UK system for recording centrally adverse reactions to any of these substances? The Opposition, particularly Chris Grayling, seem to have totally forgotten the precautionary principle. We are almost back to the situation that we had in the 1970s when people said, "I knew an old man who smoked 60 cigarettes a day until he was 85 and then got knocked over and killed by a bus. It wasn't cancer, ergo cigarettes are safe." That is patent nonsense and patently unscientific. We need to investigate the substances to find out whether they be safe, and the directive will allow the investigation to take place.
My hon. Friend makes a very useful point. There is no system for recording adverse reactions, and not just those that are a matter of life and death. However, what would be said to any Government or Opposition who had opposed measures for consumer safety and had allowed something to enter the market which, 20 or 30 years down the line, was shown to have damaged the health of people who had taken it consistently?
I wish to make progress for a minute. Then I will be happy to take interventions. I am not suggesting that such questions necessarily apply in this case, but there is no systematic way of reporting adverse reactions. The yellow card system is not used to pick up the adverse reactions to these substances. People may take them and decide to change to something else without ever reporting adverse reactions or being aware that the adverse reaction has been caused by the preparation that they have taken.
One of the grounds being raised today at the European Court of Justice is proportionality. Does the hon. Lady not agree that it was pretty extraordinary of Rob Marris to talk about the safety of these things when we know that 5,000 people a year are dying of hospital-acquired infections in NHS hospitals? Surely it would be much better for the Government to regulate such matters properly, rather than wasting everyone's time by supporting the ludicrous European Union directive.
We are taking firm action on hospital cleanliness and doing everything that we can to reduce the rate of such infections. We are on the side of the consumer on that, as we are on this. We want consumers to be safe in both contexts.
Is the Minister's case the ludicrous proposition that there will be no restriction in choice because all products will continue to be sold under the intrusive regulatory regime, or is she making the case that many will not be sold any more because they are unsafe? She seems to be arguing both cases—she is certainly saying that the more than 1 million people who signed the petition are wrong.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting intervention, does he not? I understand that he is the author of the part of the present Conservative document that suggests abolishing the expert group on vitamins and minerals, although that group has produced evidence that the industry and the Government agree would be a fine basis for the dosage levels, if we could get the European authorities to accept it.
I am answering the question. We believe that choice can be maintained, but that safety is the overriding factor. Indeed, all of us who take the supplements in one shape or form must have regard first and foremost to our health and well-being, which is what the supplements are supposed to promote.
I would like to make some progress, so if I may, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute.
We come to the question of the operation of the single market. It is important for hon. Members to accept that between 1990 and 2002, some 29 infringement procedures were initiated in cases relating to food supplements. There were also cases in which such procedures were not initiated, although there is no formal record of them. I was fascinated by the gem about negotiation from Mr. Cash versus his Front Bench. Is it not a delight to see how the Tory party still cannot agree on such fundamental issues? The hon. Gentleman would withdraw unilaterally from Europe on all fronts, but even the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell knows that that would be a disaster, as I noted from his response.
Does not the hon. Lady accept that the motion includes a reference to repealing the regulations that have been passed under the Food Safety Act 1990? The Opposition are committed to repealing them if satisfactory renegotiation does not occur. Will she consider the question of who will make decisions during the period of grace up to August 2005? She has been going on about collaboration among various parties, but does she not accept that the European scientific body will call the final shots and only then will the matter be referred back to the United Kingdom? Surely she is effectively in hock to decisions taken by an unrepresentative body on safety standards in the European Union. Who sits on that body, and do they represent people here?
The hon. Gentleman asks quite a few questions, but he should direct them to his Front-Bench colleagues. The question of whether to repeal things seems to divide him and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. Mr. Redwood, who has already left the Chamber, are questioning—
Shadow Cabinet, eh? [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Wokingham and the hon. Member for Stone seem to be of the same mind in rubbishing the experts. The right hon. Gentleman rubbishes the work of the expert group on vitamins and minerals by suggesting that its job could be better done another way and that the group should be abolished, whereas the hon. Gentleman rubbishes the work of the European Food Safety Authority and the expert advice that it takes.
I shall not take interventions for a while.
The directive was adopted in July 2002, providing three clear years until the end of the current part of the process in July 2005. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell says that the process is illogical, but I have news for him: I disagree. The industry has been aware since 2002 of the need for dossiers, but even though the deadline is only a few months away we are aware of fewer than 30 dossiers in preparation. I realise that we may not have all the information: some members of the industry have been reluctant to share information both with each other and with the Government on grounds of commercial confidentiality. Such concerns are perfectly proper, but they mean that we might not have some of the information about what is happening.
July 2005—the date by which the dossiers have to be submitted—is not an absolute cut-off. Sources can be added after that date. Let me make it clear that, with the exception of six minerals, all vitamins and minerals are represented on the positive list; sources are on a separate list. The list is an open list, not a list of exclusions or a closed list as has been suggested. There are 112 items on the positive list. Many sources of calcium, for example, are already listed, but some preparations might use other sources which are not yet on the positive list, but which could be added if a dossier is presented.
Without dossiers, the Government have said that many foodstuffs are safe or unsafe for our constituents. They have told us, with a lot of support, that salt is harmful, but make no effort either to regulate our intake or to ban it. That is why people feel that the Government are being inconsistent. How do the Government know, if they have no evidence, that the other things that they say are good for us, such as cabbages and other vegetables, are entirely safe? Eating tonnes of cabbage at one sitting would prove fatal, I am sure.
There is a tonne of expert evidence about the dangers of salt, but salt is essential to our diet and it occurs naturally in many foodstuffs. The hon. Gentleman's point is therefore a little off the mark.
No. I want to make some progress. I shall give way in a minute.
Sources can be added to the positive list after July 2005 but will not receive derogation to remain on the market pending EFSA's decision. Sources on which dossiers have been received will remain on the market until December 2009, and in perpetuity if EFSA accepts the dossier.
At my request, the Food Standards Agency contacted raw ingredient suppliers in the EU, the United States trade attaché and officials from the US embassy to discuss the obligation to provide information to the industry to support the preparation of dossiers. What is important is the position of ingredient manufacturers. There are several such companies, several far from small—Merck of Germany, for example, recorded sales of €7.202 million in 2003. That is an extremely large sum. Another company in the UK generates sales of about €4.1 billion. These are not small companies.
We know from what the industry has told us that it is having considerable difficulty with manufacturers of ingredients because they are not taking seriously the need to produce dossiers. As I have said, in many instances these are large or substantial companies that could produce dossiers. The FSA has indicated, at my request, that it would be content to deal with any of the resulting inquiries from the industry as a result of the contacts that have been made.
I believe that all parties supported the setting up of the FSA. We all know why the need was identified to do that.
Earlier, the Minister suggested to me that vitamin strengths were not at risk. I came to the Chamber specifically because my son's practitioner told me that they were. In reply to an earlier intervention the Minister hinted that her expert committee was examining the issue of vitamin strengths. Will she or will she not give a clear assurance to the House that strong doses of vitamin C will not be threatened by future legislation?
The hon. Gentleman does not understand what has happened historically. There is an expert group on vitamins and minerals, which has produced an evidence base about the levels at which it is safe to take various of these supplements on whatever dosage a day, or whatever. Both the industry and the Government agree that that is a good evidence base on dosage levels. It is the evidence base of the expert group that the Conservative party is trying to abolish. It has been submitted to the European Food Safety Authority. We are arguing that that should be the basis of the work that is done on dosage levels.
The EFSA has yet to produce its initial findings about these dosage levels. That is the state of play.
The hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members would not want to see safety compromised.
I shall deal with the question of dosage levels. At the end of the day, when the EFSA has opined on what it thinks the right basis should be, there will be negotiations and discussions. There will be work to be done. That process will take a considerable amount of time. We shall be batting for an evidence-based view following the expert group's work, which we and the industry support. That is our position and it will remain our position. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that will be the basis on which we shall work on this topic.
I do not understand the dosage argument. An individual who wanted to take a high dose of a vitamin or mineral could simply take more of the tablets. When an excess is taken of some vitamins and minerals, they are passed out in the water. That seems to be a ridiculous waste of money.
My hon. Friend is right. Nothing will ever stop people taking more of something if they would wish to and they believe that it will do them good. We will not be able to halt that. However, we will be providing the best evidence-based advice on dosage levels, and that is right.
My hon. Friend puts her finger on one of the points that has caused me to oppose the directive. When the directive is confirmed and finally introduced, it will drive people to purchase products off the internet. What will the Government do about that? It will drive people to take more tablets to get the same dose. Therefore the directive is pointless. What will the Government do about internet sales, for which consumers will have to pay much higher prices?
The internet is a challenge, and it always poses problems for regulation, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware. It also provides a route for people to bypass safeguards, and we must consider what measures we can take. It is up to the Government to make sure that the health of the consumer comes first. If people wish to ignore that advice, it is a free country—[Hon. Members: "Not any more."] It certainly is a free country.
I would like to make some progress.
All parties supported the setting up of the Food Standards Agency, and there was not a Division on the Second Reading of the Bill that established it. It is an independent food safety watchdog with the principles of putting the consumer first, being open and accessible, and operating as an independent voice. It has high credibility as an agency that protects consumers. I therefore hope that Opposition Members are not confusing a challenge to the directive with a challenge to the authority and actions of the FSA.
I should like to make progress, or Members will complain that there is not enough time.
The positive lists can be added to at any time, subject to a dossier being accepted by the EFSA. The aim is to protect consumers as well as open the single market, and consumers will want to be confident about the safety of these products. Indeed, it is in the industry's interests that consumers have that confidence—we saw only too clearly in the BSE tragedy what can happen to an industry if consumers do not have confidence in its products.
Part of the Government's argument is about wanting to play safe, and Rob Marris referred to the precautionary principle. Would the Minister explain to the House why that applies to food supplements when the Government have ignored the precautionary principle on mobile phones and will not change the law on masts under 15 m? Why are they in favour of the precautionary principle one day but against it another, after mobile phone companies have given them £22 billion?
Scientists have recently produced another report on mobile phones. We are not here to debate mobile phones, but advice is being studied by the Government, and appears to be in line with previous advice and expert opinion.
There are still open doors for the industry on dossiers. The EFSA has offered derogation for any dossier received by the deadline. It requires only one dossier to be submitted for each source, and it does not have to be submitted by a UK company or even in the UK. If we know that a dossier has been submitted in another member state we will provide derogation, and that has been made plain to the industry. The EFSA has said that derogation will apply where a slim dossier is provided. On the question of costs, we are happy to accept slim dossiers rather than larger ones. However, I do not think that the demands of producing a dossier are necessarily too great for much of the industry. The problem appears to be a lack of action by the industry and a lack of co-operation between its members. We are not asking for one dossier per company—we require one dossier per source, and it can be submitted in any member state by any company.
In response to the question from my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon about internet sales, my hon. Friend said that it was a free country. Does she accept that some of us did not find that response satisfactory? What on earth is the point of preventing people from purchasing these things in shops, where there is at least a measure of control and supervision, and driving them onto a wholly unregulated internet market? Why is she taking this step without, apparently, introducing any proposals to regulate internet sales?
That is the same kind of argument as saying, for example, that we may as well legalise drugs because we are driving people underground to buy them. [Hon. Members: "It is not the same."] Well, it is a parallel argument, which I do not accept.
In transposing the directive we are acting on Food Standards Agency advice. We must remember that producers are there to serve consumers, and it should be in producers' interest to ensure the safety of consumers. The measure has a more liberalising effect on the EU market. [Laughter.] Many member states have more restrictive regimes than we do. We are spreading the liberal culture more widely across the EU Ultimately the industry will benefit, with the market opening up to allow supplements to be freely traded in member states.
Does the Minister understand that the problem is that the quality of the expert advice on which she relies is extremely dubious? When I chaired the Agriculture Committee, we conducted an inquiry into vitamin B6. An apparently robust case for the Government's proposals was demolished by the Committee's investigations. I urge the hon. Lady to reflect that there is a prejudice in the scientific community in favour of conventional science and against things that they do not understand or do not like, or from which they do not indirectly derive any money. I urge her to reflect on the quality of the advice on which she is relying.
Perhaps I have got my history wrong, but I thought that the hon. Gentleman's group recommended a restriction on vitamin B6 as a result of that work.
The fact that the right hon. Member for Wokingham has placed the expert group on vitamins and minerals on his hit list of the quangos that the Conservatives plan to abolish is a classic case of shooting the messenger. Apparently, he does not like the message, although the industry does.
I stress again that only one dossier is needed per source, and that dossier can be submitted to any member state. There is no reason why, in a few months, any existing preparation should not continue to be on the market. There is provision for that and it has been in place for three years, so the industry could have acted on it.
As this is the first time I have heard the expression "slim dossier", will my hon. Friend define it and give us some indication of the cost of producing such a slim dossier?
There are requirements for the dossiers, but we have indicated that anything that we receive which is a reasonable attempt will be counted as a dossier and will be put forward to EFSA. It is also clear that the work that will then go on will include discussion with EFSA about what other information might be needed as part of that work. It can therefore be progressed in that way.
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 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 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.
The Lib Dems will support the motion, but it was strange and even sad that although 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 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 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. 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.
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 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 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.
I sympathise strongly with my hon. Friend's remarks, although I will not necessarily vote with her tonight. Would she advise me, as a person who takes a lot of supplements, to look out for the ones that are to be banned and stock up with sufficient supplies for the next few years?
That is what people who are aware of what is to happen will do, but many more will do what some of us have already had to do to get certain products that have been banned—use the internet. As my hon. Friend Ms Abbott said, that is leading to huge problems. The implications of the regulations have not been thought through. I am holding up a container of one of the supplements that I take—potassium, which is to be banned. That is potty, if I am allowed to use such a word in the Chamber, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Lady is making a clear and coherent case as to why we should support the motion. As she knows, the name of my hon. Friend Adam Price appears alongside her own on the Order Paper in support of the motion. I understand her attitude to Europe, although I somewhat disagree with it. Does she agree that there are two consequences arising from the Government's position? First, whatever position one takes on Europe, the Government, by failing to negotiate on the directive, have helped many people to feel alienated from Europe because certain essentials to their daily lives are being affected by European legislation.
Secondly, most of the public and consumers do not perceive a great threat from some sort of binge vitamin drinking, yet the Government appear to manufacture that threat and are almost scaremongering. That drives people away from abiding by the regulations to the internet and illegal ways of getting hold of supplies. We shall end up with spam messages about nutritional supplements instead of Viagra.
If citizens are to have confidence in the European Union, they need to know that our Government and Ministers are at the forefront, hammering away, and are not prepared to take no for an answer on such an important subject.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend holds a different view on some subjects. However, I hope that she appreciates that I believe that it is a serious matter if she spreads unnecessary anxiety. She mentioned potassium; nine sources of it are already on the positive list. How, therefore, can she justify the remark that she made a moment ago?
I can justify it by saying that if I have been used to a specific brand of supplement, I should be entitled to continue to use it until someone has proved to me, publicly and scientifically, that it poses a risk. The Minister has yet to come up with one single nutritional supplement on the banned list that has been proved to be unsafe. We keep asking for proof. All we want is some transparency.
I want to get on and I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.
Let me read out some brief quotes from people who will be affected by the directive. More and more of those who suffer from myalgic encephalomyelitis find that alternative and complementary medicine is best for them. One person states:
"I have in the past been extremely ill with ME but now fully recovered and am in excellent health. I monitor my state of health very carefully and use a number of natural supplements. I would not only be compromised healthwise if these disappeared from the market I would also be very angry."
People who use complementary medicine have not suddenly gone out to the nearest health food shop and decided, "Oh, I'll try this." They usually think about it carefully. They know what they are doing—they are adults. As other hon. Members have said, it is amazing that we are making it easier to get cannabis and downgrading it and making it easier to go binge drinking, yet the lives of adults who have thought matters through carefully will be made much more difficult.
Another person who said that they had been diagnosed with cancer nearly two years ago stated:
"The fact that I am still around today, and in healthy condition, is due largely to the regular ingestion of a selection of carefully chosen vitamins, minerals, supplements and herbs, and massive modification to my diet. And no, it wasn't the 'treatment', because I declined it all, except for surgery."
Again, that person has thought the matter through. Perhaps, as the Minister implied, if such people look carefully, they will find a variation of something that is vaguely similar to what they have been taking. However, why should they, when no one has proved that the original supplement is harmful?
Another person said:
"For the last 4–5 years I have been taking very high doses of minerals and vitamins and it has made enormous difference to my health which formerly was not good".
Another had a four-year-old son who
"suffered severe colic and eczema. Drugs didn't work; supplements did. He can now eat anything except dairy produce. We want to keep him healthy without further burdening the NHS."
Such comments do not generally come from people who always would oppose the large pharmaceutical companies. An ordinary person states:
"If the Government chooses to put the interests of drug company profits above those of ordinary people like us, they have no right to expect anything from us".
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. My intervention is relevant to demonstrate that we are not necessarily speaking in the interests of the big drug companies. In some quarters, potassium is believed to promote humility. People should therefore know that bananas constitute one of greatest natural sources of potassium. Perhaps they could be recommended to people.
I am sure that when I need my hon. Friend's expert advice, I will come to him.
The Minister has said during Health questions that
"the only reason to ban any supplements is, effectively, that they are unsafe . . . and on the basis of evidence."—[Hansard, 1 July 2003; Vol. 408, c.161.]
I repeat: where is the evidence? Can she give us any scientific proof that the products that are to be banned are unsafe? She knows, as do many hon. Members, whether we are sceptical about Europe or very pro-Europe, that this policy is all about harmonisation, and we have ended up losing out because of it.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She has no doubt studied the manner in which the European Food Safety Authority operates. The cost of the dossiers can be up to £250,000. Does she agree that one of the problems relating to the so-called period of grace is that, after it comes to an end, even the vitamins submitted in the full safety dossier that are not on the positive list will be banned? I am sure that people will want to know on what basis those nutrients would be added to the positive list in the four weeks during August 2005. That will be the crucial moment.
I see the hand of the pharmaceutical industry somewhere in all this. It is very good at lobbying and very involved in Brussels, and it is in its interest not to make a diversity of vitamin supplements easily available in health food shops. We should be worried about that. There is no reason, even at this late stage, why the Government should not negotiate some kind of amending directive that would allow member states to permit domestic market production recognised by the Food Standards Agency. If we respect and trust the FSA, why not let it do that job? Those products could then be labelled as safe and appropriate.
I know that the Whips will be whipping the vote later, but I hope that any of my colleagues who are not prepared to vote for the motion will abstain. By doing so, they would show that they have concerns about this issue. We must send out a message today that, as sensible intelligent citizens, we are not prepared to accept unnecessary regulations from Brussels that force businesses to abandon their products for no good reason, and that stop us having a choice.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I must point out that a number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and that time is getting increasingly limited. If Members could make reasonably brief contributions, everyone could well get in; otherwise, I am afraid that some people will be disappointed.
The Minister painted a rosy picture of the Government's approach, and of what they have done so far. She talked about companies that favour the regulations and about spreading the liberal culture. She said that nothing would be banned, and mentioned all-party support. I have to say to her that her approach is totally at variance with what is going on in the real world.
I listened with interest to Kate Hoey, who asked why the Government did not get stuck in. Perhaps I can answer that question by relaying the Minister's reply to the parliamentary question that I tabled two weeks ago about whether the Government would use the UK's presidency of the European Union to renegotiate the food supplements directive. She replied:
"It would not be appropriate for discussion on the food supplements directive to be considered . . ."— basically because the Food Standards Agency had—
"stated that it had not received representations from other member states".—[Hansard, 19 January 2005; Vol. 429, c. 1029W.]
That is the kind of funk attitude that has brought us to this sorry pass. The Government's approach has been more akin to a moth being attracted to a flame, in that they hovered round the issue for a long time without getting close and, when they did get close, they got burned because they were badly prepared,. That is the truth of the situation.
The regime in this country has always been less restrictive than that in Europe. What we are supposed to have, through the directive, is a form of harmonisation, not destruction of the playing field as we understand it. For example, we are not expecting to see the destruction of many of the minor manufacturers in the market. When the Minister said that major manufacturers were on side, she neglected to say that many minor manufacturers will simply go out of business and were that will involve the loss of thousands of supplements. The point made by the hon. Member for Vauxhall about potassium is real: although there may be potassium products on the positive list, the fact is that many supplements that are now compounds or part of products and preparations that people in this country have used effectively and safely for many decades will be taken off the market, so people will have to buy a new product that they do not understand. That goes to the heart of the problem.
As I said in a brief intervention on my hon. Friend Chris Grayling, the Government's record in dealing with this issue is poor and borders on negligent. With my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton and one or two others, I took a delegation to the Department of back in 2002. We struggled to get that meeting. Representatives of the manufacturing industry needed to see the Government about the issue, but the only reason why we got the meeting was that Ministers were being held to account the next day, when they were to come before European Standing Committee C. That was on a measure dealing with the authorisation of human and veterinary medicines, and the two Ministers present were obviously not well prepared. I suggest that a much simpler solution for the Government would have been improved labelling.
The positive list has attracted much comment. In defence of the Government's position, the Minister has tried to persuade the House this afternoon that most of the products that are on the market will be included on the positive list. To return to the point that I made about the remarks of the hon. Member for Vauxhall, the positive list as constituted will not be able to include all the products that are on the market now. Estimates of the number of products that will be taken from the shelves range from 800 upwards. The point made by several colleagues about the costs of that positive list have been ignored by the Minister. The cost of putting in dossiers is astronomical and completely beyond the scope of minor manufacturers. The market will therefore contract. Will the measure benefit larger manufacturers in the drugs industry? Yes, it will, because many of the drug companies have shares in or control the larger suppliers of vitamin supplements, so we will see a reduction in choice and the eradication of smaller companies—and, of course, the consumer will suffer.
It is amazing that some so-called controversial compounds such as sodium chloride, which is used to kill pests, and caustic soda, which is used to clean drains, are on the positive list, while scores of safe, non-toxic ingredients believed to benefit health are excluded. We have already heard about silicon and boron, which will be banned entirely. Naturally occurring folic acid found in spinach will also be banned, while the form sold by pharmaceutical companies will be allowed. That answers the question about whether major pharmaceutical companies will benefit.
On the issue of upper safe levels, the Minister has been in danger of misleading the House. I choose my words carefully, because when she said that the European authority responsible for setting those levels had not determined what they should be, she neglected to say that across Europe, excluding the United Kingdom, the policy normally adopted is to have so-called recommended daily allowances. They tend to be lower dosages and are historically set as a result of the influence of the Americans in Europe at the end of the second world war, when the American system was largely brought into Europe. In Britain, we have always worked on the basis of maximum permitted levels. Nutritionists in the field who really know the subject, such as Patrick Holford, will say that those levels are vital for the treatment of certain conditions. Dr. Iddon nods in agreement.
If the Minister accepts recommended daily allowances that will, probably, be forced on her, that will not be in the interests of people in this country and it will be against our tradition. That is why I say to the Minister that I believe she has been tempted into misleading us.
I hoped that I had used the word "tempted", Mr. Deputy Speaker; but perhaps I did not say that, in which case—
Did I? Oh, well, there we are. I have been put right by my hon. Friend.
We are arguing very much on the basis of work by the expert group and we are arguing for a UK-formulated response that will consider safety rather than, as it were, daily needs. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have the best evidence base offered to the EFSA on this subject.
I am grateful for that, but I just hope that the hon. Lady prosecutes our country's case with vigour, on the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Vauxhall.
The problem is that we are being asked to believe the Government when the record is really poor. As I have said, it took appearances by Ministers before Select Committees for there to be any interest at all. When my hon. Friend Mr. Luff chaired the Select Committee on Agriculture—with great distinction—it had to deal with the vitamin B6 issue. The recommendation from the committee chaired by Lady Dalton—not the Select committee, but a committee that dealt with vitamin B6—was comprehensively rejected in the end, and the idea that we should have low levels of the vitamin was thrown out.
Tom Levitt said there was no problem with high levels of vitamin B6, because it could always be passed out of the body—but the input, not the output, is what we should worry about. Less well-off people have to buy many more vitamin supplements, so they represent a tax on poorer people. Of course, they can buy them through the internet now.
The Government also failed on MLX 249, a document that proposed banning many popular and safe supplements and granting much more authority to the Medicines Control Agency. It proposed that the MCA should act as judge and jury. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East and I attended a rally in Trafalgar square where thousands of people opposed those proposals. We could hear them chanting "Tony, we want the right to choose." That was in 1999, so the issue has been running for a long time.
My hon. Friend knows a great deal about this matter. Is he worried about the way in which decisions are reached in the context of the EFSA? It is a scientific body, yet—despite what the Minister just said—it appears that the bottom line is that it is not necessarily possible for the views of the United Kingdom to produce the right results in a body composed of so many different countries.
That is the worry about the new European agency: that it will, if I may use an old hunting term, "roll the lady over". [Laughter.] I will withdraw that remark, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That makes two. I was trying to say—[Laughter.] I see that I am getting into a little difficulty. Perhaps I should move on.
Following my own mistake, I shall consider a classic one that the Government made concerning kava-kava. They decided to ban it, which was an astonishing decision. All manner of arguments were advanced in Standing Committee as to why it was so dangerous and I had to respond by pointing out that it is the national drink of Tonga. Yet even though it is a nation's national drink, the Government saw fit to ban it.
In a sense, this debate is academic, because people can now buy what they want over the internet. If our national law is at variance with what people want, they will buy what they want through that method. My hon. Friend Mr. Robathan wrote to me the other day about a company that will go out of business because it will be unable to make such products. He also cited the example of a company that is operating from the Isle of Man through the internet and e-mail, and which will be able to sell products that the Government have banned.
The Government have been slack, tardy and misguided in their approach to this issue. It is wrong for them to come to this House and claim that everything is rosy, because most people know that a lot of products will soon be removed from the shelves, and that it is all this Government's fault.
I am very glad to have the opportunity to speak in support of this measured and modest motion. Of the many issues that we will debate this week and in the weeks to come, this one gives the most cause for public concern, particularly on the part of those who perhaps do not take much interest in formal party politics. I congratulate the supporters of this motion on enabling the House to debate an issue that the public genuinely want debated.
Ministers need to remember that one of the phenomena of the past decade has been the appearance on the political agenda of health, nutrition and food issues. Indeed, I cannot remember a time when the public were more concerned about such issues. Those of us who are parents—and who perhaps have poor diets ourselves—take a particular interest in nutrition, the amount of preservatives in food and the amount of processed food available, as well as in the lack of access for our poorest communities to fresh, unadulterated food. Such concerns have led to the emergence of an interest in vitamins, minerals and other dietary supplements.
In the past few months, I have received more letters, e-mails and other communications from the public about this issue than I have about many others. Ministers said that certain Members were spreading concern about it, but in fact the pressure is coming from our constituents, which is why it is important that we have this debate today. It is difficult to explain to them that they face having limited or no access to the vitamins, minerals and supplements on which they depend, when at the same time the Government are trying to introduce 24-hour drinking, despite the well known health effects of alcohol. How can we say that our only concern is to protect health when we are legislating to allow people to drink themselves into a stupor 24 hours a day?
One consequence of the directive will be to force people to purchase such products on the internet, where there are far fewer controls, inspections and guarantees of product safety. This measure is being advanced more in an effort to satisfy the interests of pharmaceutical companies than to satisfy our constituents' need and desire for access to a wide range of vitamins, minerals and other supplements. I should also point out that people have been taking such products for many years, with no report of ill effects.
Although I do not share the passionate anti-European views of many Conservative—and, indeed, Labour—Members, I consider myself mildly Eurosceptic. Ministers must consider why public opinion has moved away from Europe since 1997. It is because of matters such as this, which seem minor to Ministers but adversely affect millions of people. The public are aware that Europe intervened in this matter, but it is not clear that Ministers stood up for our people's interests.
This matter is very important to my constituents and I have heard from many of them in recent weeks and months. The motion is a modest one and I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will reconsider their position and withdraw their amendment.
I am delighted to follow Ms Abbott and want to carry on in the same vein. This is not a party political debate. I do not want to score Tory points, or any other points. I am here to speak for my constituents, hundreds—if not thousands—of whom use herbal food shops in my area. They buy products that they and their families have used for many years, as the hon. Lady described.
I intervened on the Minister to suggest that she risked being disingenuous by saying that there was no danger that products would be banned. She seemed to hint that I did not understand the difference between a product and an ingredient, which is like saying that I do not see the difference between an egg and an omelette. One needs ingredients to make a product. Removing access to the ingredients effectively removes access to the product. That is what will happen, although the Minister does not seem to want to understand that.
It was claimed earlier that vitamin A can kill, and that is true, but so can tea. Tea is a herbal infusion but, like almost anything else taken through the mouth, it can kill if consumed to excess. One would have to drink a heck of a lot of it, but the medical records suggest that people have died from drinking too much tea. Coffee can kill too, as can all sorts of things that we consume. So far, the Minister—or the Government, or Europe—has offered no evidence to suggest that the proscribed list under discussion this evening has ever killed anyone.
No scientific evidence has been offered to support the Government's ludicrous argument that people will buy products that harm them. Kate Hoey said that she had one product that will be banned in her pocket. As a mature adult, she is entitled to choose to use it. The Government's response to the directive is an example of the nanny state rolling over with its paws in the air and allowing its tummy to be rubbed by the nanny superstate.
In whose interests is the Government's response? The Minister for Public Health said that the directive had been adopted in the interests of public health and safety, but she did not say why the public would be in any way unsafe. It is possible that some of the products used by me, my wife, my family and other hon. Members, for example, do us no good. We may waste lots of money on them, but that is our choice. The products have not killed me and do not appear to have done me any harm.
I believe that some of them do me good, but the hon. Gentleman may need the sort of product that will soon be available at a bar 24 hours a day. That may give him more comfort than my speech.
One hon. Member with a scientific qualification made the valid point earlier that all these products will be available on the internet. Is it better for me or my constituents to go into Holland and Barrett or Juliet Seeley's emporium in Broadstairs and receive excellent advice from knowledgeable people who understand the range of products that they are selling—in the same way as the Minister and her family would go into a chemist's and take advice on over-the-counter prescription medicines—or to buy on the internet? If the Minister cannot answer that one simple question, she has to concede that there is no benefit in the regulation that she seems hellbent on supporting. It will do more harm than good, and she should be fighting it.
Before I commence my remarks, the House may wish to know that I am a biology graduate who taught for 20 years. I regularly taught food and nutrition, and I also have in my constituency a company called Nutri which produces supplements of, I am sure, a high standard and markets them honestly to many people. Like many hon. Members, I was contacted by several hundred constituents the last time this issue arose to express their concerns. By half-past 3 this afternoon, four had chosen to remind me of those concerns prior to this debate.
I have another admission to make, which is that I do not often read Opposition motions all the way through—but this one was short and stood some consideration. It talks about the importance of a satisfactory compromise—not language that one often hears from the Opposition. The early-day motion that preceded the motion had a degree of cross-party support, and the motion mentions a desire
"to protect the interests of consumers and manufacturers".
That is a creditable aim. However, I do not believe that the unilateral repeal of the regulations is possible. The Government motion explains why renegotiation could be dangerous and produce a less satisfactory outcome.
Moreover, the Opposition motion and the comments from Opposition Members have been ridden with the Euroscepticism that pervades that party. Mr. Blunt talked about a directive from the "ludicrous" European Union and Mr. Cash has been delightfully predictable all afternoon in his comments. However, Conservative Members should remember that we are in this situation because of single market regulations approved by this House under a Conservative Government. That is not meant as a political point, but Conservative Members should bear that in mind, because it could be regarded as the source of their problem.
The negotiations in which representatives of the British Government were involved for many months were long and complex. They involved bringing together 15 nations—at that time—with different rules, regulations, backgrounds and experiences. There was probably less commonality between their experiences on the issue than on many others. They were dedicated to putting a high priority on safety, and the result is pro-choice. However, it is pro informed choice, and that is the important point. As other hon. Members have said, the directive will provide great opportunities for trade in the commodities in question, given the single market experience, for companies such as that based in my constituency.
It bears repeating that the outcome of the negotiations was welcomed at the time by the Consumers Association, the Health Food Manufacturers Association and others. We are now talking about the implementation of the decisions. Every vitamin that was on sale in this country in 2002 will continue to be on sale. Every mineral for which there is no evidence of harm—evidence of safety can be produced in the next few months—will be on sale until at least 2009. Although a dossier has to be produced, we have heard today that it can be a slim one produced by any company or group of companies in any of the 25 states of the European Union. It is not necessary for every single product produced by every single manufacturer to be represented separately. Every licensed medicinal product is unaffected by the regulations.
How does the hon. Gentleman think that each individual company will decide whether it should be the one that submits the dossier for the whole of Europe? How would it decide whether it should take on the cost itself rather than waiting and hoping that another company will do it?
I appreciate that commercial issues will be involved. However, organisations, such as the Health Food Manufacturers Association, speak for the industry as a whole, and I hope that there will be European equivalents. If there is openness and we can tell what dossiers have been submitted and if the Government know what dossiers are in the pipeline, it should not be too difficult for companies to make such decisions.
Six minerals do not yet qualify subject to the evidence of their being safe, but they still could qualify if the dossiers are submitted even prior to the evidence in them being fully taken on board by the European Food Safety Authority. Those minerals are vanadium, tin, cobalt, silicon, boron and nickel. Chris Grayling told the House that vanadium plays a role in fighting diabetes, but I had no knowledge of that. I have taught diet and nutrition and I remember studying invertebrates at A-level and learning that only sea squirts had a biological use for vanadium. They have it in their blood. At that time, there was no other known biological function for vanadium. Similarly tin has no known biological function. Cobalt is included on the list, but it forms part of vitamin B12. Cobalt will obviously not be banned, because vitamin B12 is allowed. Silicon, boron and nickel are trace elements that are required in the diet, but there are no recorded cases of deficiencies in them. They occur naturally in sufficient trace quantities in the diet for them to be effective as trace minerals.
I am a former teacher, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind me making this point and I am sure that he will be happy to answer me. He used two expressions when he spoke about what needed to be proved about an acceptable mineral or nutrient. He said that they must show no evidence of harm and evidence of safety. Are they the same things? Or once one has proved no evidence of harm, does one then need to prove evidence of safety?
The Minister outlined what the dossiers were for and what they would have to prove. I am sure that the detail is much better known by the industry than it is by me.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell put his finger on what the issue is all about. He talked about people believing that these products did them good. I think that we are talking about an element of faith healing and a placebo effect. I do not criticise or condemn alternative therapies, but healing or health care based on belief rather than scientific evidence is a dangerous path to go down. I am not against people taking supplements, but I am against people making claims for them that cannot be justified.
In my time, I have had reflexology, and I do not understand how that works. I have had treatment from a chiropractor—I do understand how that works—and homeopathy. Some of the elements and minerals that we are talking about occur in such small quantities that we are almost talking homeopathic quantities. Large doses are exactly what people do not want. I was particularly interested in the intervention by Mr. Bellingham when he said that he had taken zinc. It clearly galvanised him into action—a scientific joke for the House.
When many of these products are in the diet to excess, they simply pass through the body and are excreted at the other end. They clearly do not perform a particularly useful function, especially in respect of the fact that people have spent their money on them. However, other products are retained in the body. For example, if carotene is taken in excess as a vitamin, it can cause discolouration of the skin and other well understood effects.
The people who have the most to gain from greater sales of greater quantities of higher doses of the supplements are the manufacturers. It is like the mustard principle, because the bit left aside that does no good—the excess consumed—generates profits for the industry. I am not against people making profits, and more profit will be made when the products are sold to a larger market, which will be possible under the commonality of the rules that will apply throughout the European Union. However, we must ensure that there is no medical risk from the products, which is why the precautionary principle is right, and that we base our recommendations to people on daily doses of vitamins, for example, on well established scientific principles. Although I do not accuse everyone in the field or every supporter of this, an element of mumbo-jumbo is involved in the belief element of the way in which the products work, which can be dangerous in certain circumstances.
"safe, properly labelled, and . . . freely traded".
It refers to
"as many products as possible", and hon. Members should bear in mind that the current list is not exhaustive, or the end of the story. It says that:
"all of the vitamins and most of the minerals currently on sale in the UK will still be available".
Reopening negotiations would not only lead us down a legally dicey path, but could risk making the effect of the regulations more restrictive, as the amendment says. Having considered the motion and the amendment in great detail, I have no hesitation in plumping—would you believe it, Mr. Deputy Speaker—for the Government amendment.
I declare a past interest because during the 1970s, I was involved in the field of complementary and alternative medicine as a lawyer. In about 1973, the acupuncturists came to see me, and I later discovered that there was a vast amount of discrimination against chiropractors, homeopaths and others in such fields. In those days, it was contrary to the rules of professional ethics of the General Medical Council for a doctor to refer to an osteopath. One can thus gauge the extent of the changes that have taken place, because many doctors today practise therapies that are generally described as complementary medicine. I am sure that most people think that that is beneficial and advantageous. Indeed, if we go back to the time of the Medical Act of 1853—I think—people who went on to the medical register, if there was such a thing, had virtually no qualifications of any description, so I think that we have made enormous progress.
I was slightly worried when Tom Levitt said that everything would be done in accordance with well established scientific principles. I am an administrative lawyer, among other things, which is why I intervened on the Minister to ask how decisions will be arrived at. When such scientific decisions—they are well outside my knowledge—are taken, we need to ensure that that is done properly. Nevertheless, there is great prejudice and bias against many aspects of the field, which is reflected by what I discovered regarding osteopaths in the 1970s and what I know from having been extremely closely professionally involved with it for many years, although I am not now.
In the 1980s, the British Medical Association attempted to ban alternative medicine, and was supported by the medical profession at the time. The response from 150 Members of Parliament put an end to that sort of virulent opposition to complementary and alternative medicine. It seems to me, on the balance of the evidence—looking at the experience of my constituents and of people I know who have benefited—that a great deal of good has come from alternative medicine.
Having said that, I ask again: how do the "difficult" nutrients get on to the positive list? By "difficult" nutrients, I mean those that are causing disputes between the various parties. That question has not yet been clearly answered. The EFSA has its own procedures and mechanisms and the point that I have been probing, but on which I have not yet received a reply, is that there appears to be a considerable body of opinion among the advisory councils that tends to be less than objective in arriving at decisions. It is important that we know who makes appointments to those bodies, the principles on which they operate, whether they are entirely devoid of conflicts of interest and what decision-making process is used in determining whether a dossier will lead to a ban. I need not enlarge on that point, as I have dealt with it in interventions.
One point that I do not think has been mentioned in the debate—forgive me if it has, Mr. Deputy Speaker—is that today the European Court of Justice is to make a decision on the challenge passed to it by the High Court about a year ago. The case raises some important questions. If the Court decides in favour of the Government and decides that the regulations are effective, what would the Opposition be able to do about it if we took a contrary view? On the other hand, what would happen if the decision, based on the arguments advanced in the case, went against the Government and the regulations had to be repealed? The answer to the second question is simple: if the Court decides that a directive and the regulations based on it are defective or ultra vires—whatever grounds it uses—according to the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, that is the end of the matter. However, it is not the end of the matter for the UK Parliament, or for the many thousands of people who want their views to be reflected in the repeal of the regulations.
I was therefore delighted to see the terms of the Conservative motion, because not only does it call for renegotiation of the food supplements directive, but it indicates a willingness to
"repeal the regulations if the renegotiation does not reach a satisfactory compromise to protect the interests of consumers and manufacturers in the United Kingdom."
We could say the same about fisheries and over-regulation. I would argue that we could say the same about the European treaties, as well. The European Union Bill is to be introduced tomorrow. The question I put to the Prime Minister the other day is: what will he do if there is a no vote in the referendum? Will he return to the issue that is before us? Will he do what is necessary to give effect to the will of the British people as expressed either in a referendum or by a vote in the House? That is the crucial democratic question that faces us all in the House and outside it. It happens to arise, as a matter of principle, under the provisions of the measures that we are discussing in the motion. The issue is whether we are able to repeal the regulations if renegotiation does not reach a satisfactory compromise. The short answer is: yes we can.
I do not intend and I do not need to go through all the reasons for that. There will be time enough to consider these matters both in respect of the European Union Bill, which will be presented tomorrow, and also the Constitutional Reform Bill, to which I have tabled some amendments, which is to be discussed in a Committee of the whole House next week.
The fact that we are prepared to state that we would repeal the regulations, if it becomes necessary to do so, is a fundamental constitutional matter that the House, as a whole, must address. It arises, for example, in relation to immigration and asylum. The Minister for Energy and E-Commerce, who is to reply, has a great deal of experience in this area. He knows exactly what I am talking about. There are answers to these questions and there are two bodies of jurisprudence. There is the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice, which is considering this challenge today. It says, under the case of Costa v. ENEL 1964, that the European Court—this is endorsed by another case called Simmentahl—has the right to decide the issue of the superiority or supremacy of legislation in terms of its jurisdiction as against the laws and the constitutions of member states.
On the other hand, we have a tradition, which is based on the fact that Parliament can decide by a subsequent clear and unambiguous enactment passed after the European Communities Act 1972, not only that we can—this is in line with McCarthy's v. Smith involving Lord Denning, and Lord Justice Laws in the Metric Martyrs case—make such provision as we wish but, in addition to that, the judges are under an obligation to give effect to that law as passed by Parliament, providing that it is clear and unambiguous. The Factortame case is based on the 1972 Act and, therefore, is within the general rubric of what I have described.
We are dealing, perhaps for the first time, with a serious motion that raises the question of the Conservative party being prepared to go down the route of stating on the Floor of the House, in line with what I have been arguing for the past few years, including when I was in my previous position, that it is open to us to be able to repeal or amend legislation that is inconsistent with that which has arisen from the 1972 Act. I do not need to enlarge on that any further. The importance of what we are discussing cannot be underestimated.
I have only two or three minutes so I shall make only one point.
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 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
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.
I, too, shall be brief. As Members know, I am the only practising GP in the House, so I have an interest, to say the least, in this issue.
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 thing—so in that sense I do not oppose their use, as they serve a useful purpose in society. However, that 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. 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 B6—certainly higher than the current recommended maximum dose—and 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.
We have had a well informed debate—another 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 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 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.
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 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. 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 Mr. Cash spoke in great technical detail. 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, 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.
After the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend 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
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 UK—21 million consumers—and 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.
I am sure that hon. Members will, like me, have been deluged with e-mails and calls from constituents ahead of today's debate. Let me mention a few that I have received in the past few hours:
"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."
Another constituent says:
"They are extremely important to me and my lifestyle, and they are a safe way to stay in shape for my sporting commitments."
"Many people find enormous benefit to their health from supplementation, unlike the many problems caused by the pharmaceutical drugs prescribed widely."
The representations go on and on; I have received many examples in just the past couple of days.
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
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.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I appreciate that he is short of time. Will he share with the House his appreciation of the likely loss of employment both to my constituents and others from what is being done, which is so ill defined and difficult to justify?
Absolutely. That is why I said that this was a £335 million industry, so a lot of jobs will be affected, in addition to people who use the products.
What discussions took place between the Department of Health and the Commission as to the level of supposed risk and whether a full ban is appropriate for this country? How many of the 533,527 people who died in the UK in 2002, as is catalogued on the Department of Health website, died as a result of having too much Solgar's pre-natal nutrient or popping too many folic acid pills? What recorded side effects result from direct consumption of various cocktails or quantities of any of the threatened supplements? The Minister could name none. What risk assessments have been carried out, compared with the benefits that many users, such as my sportsman constituents claim to get? What are the precedents for using the positive lists on which nutrients and nutrient sources must now feature before being permissible? When did we concede the principle that all supplements are guilty until proven innocent?
The fact is that there is no evidence for this move and no proven danger in a harmless lifestyle choice in which millions of our constituents have opted to indulge for many years, unfettered by Government and allowed the freedom to make their own choices.
No, as I have very little time.
The same applied to the kava kava regulations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth referred. In Committee, we heard that that product was banned on the basis of seven cases over the past 10 or 12 years across the entire world. Not one single liver biopsy could be produced in evidence and the prime suspect was an 86-year-old who died in his sleep and had apparently taken a kava kava pill at some time in the past.
Consumers are being denied their right to take responsibility for their health by using safe and popular specialist supplements of their choice. The Government have been wholly disingenuous. When the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety was an Under-Secretary of State for Health, she said:
"We must get the right balance between consumers having freedom of choice and access to a wide range of safe supplements, while making sure, crucially, that we protect public health."—[Hansard, 20 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 100.]
Where is the choice in this blanket ban? What is the evidence of danger to public health? What is proposed is grossly disproportionate. As the Leader of the House put it, the proposed ban is "unnecessary interference". As Sue Croft, director of Consumers for Health Choice, put it:
"The Government are saying one thing to consumers, to industry and to Parliament, while pursuing a quite different course in its negotiations with the EU."
The Government are being wholly duplicitous. They have the power at least to delay implementation in the UK, or they could use the UK's presidency of the EU to renegotiate the directive, as our motion states, but they refuse to do either of those things.
Whom does the directive benefit? It does not benefit the 21 million adult users or the supplement industry, which is worth £335 million. What about the big drug companies, which are lining up in favour of the directive as they muscle out the smaller players? As today's Daily Mail puts it:
"There's a clue in the contents of that approved list—by and large, vitamins and minerals produced by big drug companies are on it, while ones made by small specialist firms are not."
The directive panders to this Government's increasing nanny state tendencies—if you can't control it, ban it; if big business does not like it, restrict it; and if Europe does not want it, do not resist and comply—fast.
The real fear is what comes next. The Government's own submission for today's case in the European Court totally reverses the UK Government's position and states that the directive is both "proportionate" and a "good starting point". Spinach contains high levels of naturally occurring folic acid. Surely there is a danger of overdosing on spinach, so the spinach roulade had better come off the new Labour menu. Too many Rice Krispies, which contain extra niacin, vitamin B6 and riboflavin, will make you go snap, crackle and pop—surely Rice Krispies should be for the chop.
Apart from all the problems with imports and the internet, how will the directive be enforced? Can we look forward to a network of secret cells of pregnant women who get together in the dead of night to feed their now illicit habit of popping Solgar pre-natal nutrient tablets? They will have to masquerade as the modern-day equivalent of the now-defunct Tupperware party to foil the possibility of police raids—Mrs. Smith from No. 31 stands guard as Mrs. Miggins from No. 57 smuggles in a false-bottomed Ovaltine jar containing Solgar pills, secreted in the lining of her Liberty-print maternity dress. Will we see special flying squads of supplement-busting police lining up alongside police traffic patrols to blood-test drivers for suspiciously high levels of boron in the bloodstream? Will border patrols be stepped up, with cannabis-sniffing dogs retrained to detect traces of evening primrose oil smuggled in illicitly from countries outside the EU?
The trouble is that the police are too busy preparing to chase people in pink coats on horseback, knocking on doors demanding to search for red marks on children's backsides and arresting dutiful husbands who change a plug socket in their kitchen at the infinitesimal risk of harming themselves. The whole prospect is absurd nonsense, and it would be laughable if the regulations that we are debating today were anything other than a real and imminent threat to the liberty of responsible grown-ups who have chosen to supplement their diets with vitamins and other non-prescription medications, because they believe that those products do more good than harm—if people believed otherwise, they would not buy such products.
There is no problem here that cannot be addressed by better labelling, information about nutrient contents, recommended daily doses and warnings about possible health risks. The directive is a solution looking for a problem, but the problem exists only in the petty, nannying, bureaucratic, Euro-subservient minds of Ministers, who are out of touch with their constituents and what ordinary people choose to do with their own lives, and out of credibility when they discuss freedom and choice. This is dodgy science from a dodgy Government; hon. Members should have none of it and vote for the cross-party motion.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.] A Conservative Front Bencher says, "Answer that," but I am not sure whether the previous speech contained anything of substance worth answering.
The debate has been interesting, with strong contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend Tom Levitt gave us the benefit of his knowledge of biology and nutrition, which derives from his being a teacher. My hon. Friend Dr. Stoate is a practising GP, and he set out his concerns. My hon. Friend Dr. Iddon took a different view, but he does not support the Opposition motion.
My hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) also took a different view. Some hon. Members on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party contributed, in particular Mr. Cash, who made an elegant legal argument—as usual. My neighbour, Mr. Tredinnick, who has a long interest in the issue, made a strong contribution.
This is a serious subject for those of us who recognise the importance of issues to do with vitamins and food supplements, and it is sad that the Conservatives are using it as fodder for a cheap party political, pre-election bit of knockabout. Scare stories are being run whereby vulnerable people who rely on various supplements are being told by Conservative political opportunists—and, let me add, by some decent and well-meaning people too—that their vitamin or food supplements will be banned on
Many people will be reassured to some extent by my hon. Friend's remarks. However, even if certain supplements may not be banned, is it not the case that later this year the maximum permitted level of certain vitamin and mineral supplements will be set at levels that are significantly lower than those that have become habitual in UK health foods?
If my hon. Friend, who is another neighbour of mine, had been here earlier he would have heard my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health deal with that very point. We are adopting an evidence-based approach whereby the United Kingdom is submitting evidence to the European Food Safety Agency to consider the issue of maximum dosage. There are no current proposals that that dosage should be reduced. Provisions in the directive allow it to be raised at a later stage, but the straight answer to my hon. Friend is that there is currently no such plan. The Germans have proposed a lower dosage; we are proposing a higher one. We will have to see how that discussion develops in future.
Is not the problem with the Conservatives, as typified by Tim Loughton, that they completely reject the spirit of scientific inquiry? He asserted that these substances are harmless, but does not wish to engage in a process to get the evidence to find out whether that be the case. The directive will enable us to get that evidence.
My hon. Friend is right. This is to do with the extent to which we develop consumer protection. We want to do that in a sensible way that not only allows people to have a wide choice in the supplements that they use but reassures them that those products are safe. In respect of products that might fall outside one of the prescribed lists, there is a procedure that can prevent that from happening, at least until 2009, and in many cases, indefinitely.
We need more facts and less alarmist rhetoric. There are problems with the directive—we have always been clear about that. It was the result of a hard-fought negotiation in which other member states sought a much more restrictive regime but did not get it. We got much of what the industry asked us to get. That is why, when we signed up to the directive, the various trade associations in the vitamins and minerals industry supported our doing so. Their views may have changed since in some cases, but they supported us then.
The hon. Gentleman was not listening to me. I just said that the views of those in the industry may have changed since the directive was signed—that is a matter for them—but at the time they supported the Government's signing the directive and wanted us to do it. The Government acted in a bona fide way, and we want to continue to work with them to ensure that they can produce the products that their customers want.
No, I want to make progress.
In the negotiations, we got much of what the industry requested. The directive is sufficiently flexible to ensure that no vitamin or mineral that is currently on sale in British shops must cease to be sold after
I shall consider the best approach for the industry and consumers shortly. First, let me deal with Conservative claims that we can reopen negotiations or revoke the directive. Conservative Members offer revocation as a false panacea, although I noticed that, when repeatedly pressed by the hon. Member for Stone to commit to revoking the directive, Chris Grayling wriggled and writhed out of promising consumers that they would do that. They propose revocation in the motion but failed to say that they would do it when asked by the hon. Member for Stone.
I invite the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell to intervene and say what he failed to say when he was repeatedly asked to do so earlier. I offer him the opportunity. He will not take it. Why has he tabled a motion that he is not prepared to defend? The answer is cynicism. It may serve the short-term purposes of the Eurosceptic Tory party in the run-up to a general election but it will cost the taxpayer and the consumer dear.
If we did as the motion suggests, we would be in serious breach of obligations under the European Communities treaties and the Single European Act, to which past Conservative Governments signed up. We would attract infraction proceedings from the European Commission and taxpayers would be likely to be hit by heavy fines. Other member states could also initiate action under article 227 and, ultimately, the UK would be obliged to enforce the directive or take the route that the hon. Member for Stone offers: withdrawal from Europe. Revocation would leave us in a weaker position because we would be unlikely to have submitted the important dossiers to keep the products on the market. Clearly, that would damage the industry in the long term.
Let me consider the idea of renegotiating the directive. To do that, we would need a qualified majority of member states. The only likely qualified majority at the moment is for a more restrictive directive. The trade associations urged the UK Government to support the directive at the conclusion of the negotiations three years ago because it was clear that we had got as many concessions as we were likely to get. If we pushed any further, things would become much more restrictive.
The only two countries with a similar market to that of the UK for vitamins and minerals are Ireland and Holland. Neither country has asked to reopen negotiations on the directive. Even if they were reopened, we would be faced with a vast majority of member states that sought a more restrictive outcome, not the more liberal result that the Conservatives promise. We got several concessions in the initial negotiation and Conservatives' proposals would put them at risk. Consumers who rely on the supplements would be at risk because of Conservative policy.
The concessions include time scales for implementation, the ability to keep products on the market until the EFSA had ruled on them, and the guarantee that the dossier presented by
On the presidency, the Conservatives have left it a bit late to make their requests. The law is effective from
Our aim is to ensure that the directive is implemented in a way that allows consumers to continue to use the products that they use now. By contrast, the Conservatives are offering renegotiation with no realistic prospect of success, or the prospect of unilateral revocation, which would be illegal and result in the taxpayer paying fines—
Question accordingly agreed to.
Mr. deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House congratulates the Government on successfully negotiating a final text of the Directive that works in the interests of UK consumers and industry by ensuring that products are safe, properly labelled, and can be freely traded across EU member states; notes that UK legislation gives maximum flexibility that ensures that as many products as possible can continue to be marketed after the Directive comes into effect on 1st August, and that all of the vitamins and most of the minerals currently on sale in the UK will still be available; agrees with the Government's assessment that re-opening discussion on the Directive at this point runs the risk of making its effects more restrictive and is thus against UK interests; and welcomes the Government's continued commitment to working with the industry on assessing the safety of individual food supplements, and to facilitating negotiations with the European Food Standards Agency.