Clause 128 - Fluoridation of water supplies

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 26th October 2021.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 5:00 pm, 26th October 2021

I beg to move amendment 149, in clause 128, page 108, line 22, at end insert—

“(za) in subsection (3)(a)(i), after “Secretary of State” insert “or relevant local authority”;”

The Bill removes the ability of local authorities to commence fluoridation schemes and gives that ability to the Secretary of State. This amendment, together with Amendment 150, seeks to allow local authorities to commence schemes as well as the Secretary of State.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 150, in clause 128, page 108, line 26, after “Secretary of State” insert “or relevant local authority”.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 149.

Amendment 151, in clause 128, page 108, leave out lines 33 to 36.

This amendment would remove the ability of the Secretary of State to pass the cost of fluoridation onto another public body.

Clause stand part.

Clause 129 stand part.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I am really pleased that we have reached clauses 128 and 129, on fluoridation of water supplies. This is something that I am personally very enthusiastic about, so I want to make a few points on it. Fluoridation is a very important venture. Oral ill health can be a hidden and very personal but insidious ailment. It is the single biggest reason for hospital admission among our children. A 2015 review of children’s dental health found that a quarter of five-year-olds have decayed teeth, with an average of 3.4 per child.

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

I wonder whether the hon. Member, like me, is surprised that the opportunity offered by this Bill has not been used to introduce a child dental health programme in England similar to Childsmile, which has existed in Scotland since 2007, or the scheme that Wales has had since 2011. Although there was agreement a couple of years ago to establish pilot sites across England, data on the impact in Scotland, where many areas had significantly poor dental health, has been available for four years. I am just surprised that something like that has not been included in this Bill, when we are talking improving the dental health of children and addressing the fact that, as the hon. Member mentioned, dental clearance—the removal of significant numbers of teeth—is the commonest reason to administer a general anaesthetic to a child. That is quite a shocking indictment.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I am grateful for that intervention; I was going to turn to that issue next. Not only have opportunities been missed over the last decade to invest in oral health, but we are actually going backwards. Supervised tooth brushing and other high-quality evidence-based interventions, such as the models that the hon. Member mentioned, have disappeared because of this Government’s cuts to the public health budget. Of course, the savings from those cuts are hoovered up very quickly by the costs that they generate elsewhere in the system. It is very sad, it results in a lot of pain and lost potential for the individual, and it is bad for the collective.

Fluoridation is one element in trying to put that right. Putting fluoride in our water is a really good, evidence-based intervention that is proven to work. For every pound spent in deprived communities, there are savings of nearly £13 within just five years, and of course every independent review of fluoridation has affirmed its safety. As a nation, we ought to be creating new fluoridation schemes targeted at the communities that would benefit the most. The current system does not work, as I remember well from my time in Nottingham. Currently, a local authority has to decide to enter into this space, build support, and then, with support from Public Health England and the Secretary of State, move to implementation. However, that generally fails for two reasons.

First, our political boundaries do not match up very accurately with our water boundaries, so where we would physically tip in the bag of fluoride does not fit with our political geographies. That creates issues between authorities such as mine, where the case would be very strong because of our oral health outcomes, and bordering authorities that would have less interest because they have better oral health outcomes. Secondly, this issue is contentious. Local authorities have an awful lot on, and it is very hard for a local council to make this the one totemic fight in its four-year term. There are only so many big things that a council can take on at once, and fluoridation gets beyond the bandwidth of local authorities.

We support the principle behind clause 128; bringing the Secretary of State into this is a very good idea. The position of the Secretary of State, once removed from the entire country, can make different geographic decisions sensibly align with water boundaries. He is perhaps also in a stronger position to help with some of the political issues, so in concept we support that.

Amendments 149 and 150 are a pair. Why are the Government keen to swap the current local system for one that is nationally driven, when we could have both? As I have said, we support adding the heft of the Secretary of State to the local expertise of our councils, but why remove councils from the process? Although clause 128 gives new powers to the Secretary of State, our argument is that local authorities should be able to retain their powers in the event that they might want to use them. This is a cost-free proposal. It merely expands the range of possible approaches and paths towards fluoridation, and it promotes local decision making.

Clause 128(2)(d), which inserts new subsection (6B) into section 87 of the Water Industry Act 1991, is a little bit naughty, and amendment 150 seeks to address it. According to page 43 of the Government’s community water fluoridation toolkit, if a local community can successfully get itself together to get a scheme going, Public Health England is required to meet the reasonable capital and operating costs. I presume that that responsibility ported to the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities when it came into force at the beginning of this month. However, subsection (6B) removes that provision and instead allows the Secretary of State to direct another body—I presume it will be the local authority—to pay for the scheme. Therefore, instead of being paid for nationally, the scheme will be paid for by a body chosen by the Secretary of State. That will be a barrier to the creation of a scheme.

I think that local authorities will be less keen to engage with the Secretary of State in implementing a scheme if they feel that they will have to pay for it. Their budgets are exceptionally stretched—I suspect they will not get much support tomorrow—and the benefits do not generally go back to local authorities. Of course, the benefit goes to the community in general, but in terms of organisations and cashable benefits, they would be health service benefits rather than local authority benefits. I do not think that the proposal promotes integrated thinking. The amendment seeks to address that, and I hope that the Minister will reflect on it. As I have said, I think that, broadly speaking, the clauses do the right thing, but their current effect will be to replace a locally led system with a nationally led one, when actually we could just have both.

To conclude, over the past year we have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Government in expressing to communities up and down the country that vaccines are not only safe but necessary. The objections that we receive come from those who argue in the face of evidence or who rely on conspiracy theories. The same is true of arguments against fluoridation. It is an evidence-based, safe and highly effective intervention. That is not to say that it is easy to do. It does not require behaviour change but it has a remarkable impact, so I am keen to hear from the Minister not only that the Government want to put this in the Bill, but that they want to get on with doing it in communities such as mine, which will benefit. If they do that, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with them again, and I think it will be an exceptionally important breakthrough in oral health in this country.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in the points he makes about fluoridation and the parallels he draws with the vaccine. Although there have been times over the past 20 months when he and I, and our respective Front-Bench teams, have not necessarily agreed on every aspect of the response to the pandemic—that is appropriate, as the Opposition seek to challenge and question the Government—may I pay tribute to him and his colleagues in the shadow health team for what they have done to highlight the importance of the vaccine and to counter the misinformation that some have spread about it?

I will speak to amendments 149 and 150 together, as the former is consequential on the latter. They would allow for local authorities to bring forward proposals for new fluoridation schemes and to enter into arrangements with water companies. As has been set out, tooth decay is a significant, yet largely preventable, public health problem. In 2019-20, more than 35,000 people aged 19 or under were admitted to hospital for the extraction of decaying teeth. In the same year, the cost of hospital admissions for tooth extractions among that age group was estimated to be £54.6 million.

As we know, fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral found in water and some foods, and at the right levels it has been shown to reduce tooth decay. If five-year-olds in England with low levels of fluoride drank water containing at least 0.7 mg of fluoride per litre, the number experiencing decay would fall by 28% in the most deprived areas, and the number of hospital admissions for tooth extractions due to decay would reduce by up to 68%.

We have seen no new water fluoridation schemes implemented for the past 40 years. Both major parties in the House must accept our responsibility for that. That is not a fault of the NHS or local government, but because responsibility in our view has sat fundamentally at the wrong level for driving forward such a health intervention. Local authorities currently have the responsibility to initiate new water fluoridation schemes or to propose that existing schemes are varied or terminated. We have heard their frustration with the overly burdensome and complex processes in place for initiation and variation of schemes. The steps we are proposing to take through the Bill are intended to make it simpler to expand schemes. We all share the same ambition.

Transferring responsibility to central Government will allow us, for the first time, to move away from the limitations of local authority boundaries and to look more strategically across the country, to where oral health is the poorest. Subject to funding being agreed, we will be able to expand schemes across larger areas to make an impact on a bigger scale. We know it is less cost-efficient to operate schemes across individual local areas.Allowing local authorities to continue to bring forward schemes and to enter into arrangements with water companies separately would run counter to our ambitions to manage expansion at a higher level, again adding extra complexity, which we are eeking to remove.

We understand that some local authorities have begun the process to bring forward schemes, and we appreciate that they are passionate about their schemes and the benefits that they would bring to the populations they serve. I want to provide assurance that we share the ambition to expand schemes so that more of the population can benefit from water fluoridation, which we know is both safe and effective.

Any plans to expand schemes will of course take into account oral health across the country as well as areas that have already began to progress schemes. We want to engage and listen to local areas so that together we can make the biggest impact on oral health improvement that we know fluoridation will provide. For those reasons, I ask the hon. Member for Nottingham North to consider withdrawing his amendment.

On amendment 151, we are taking powers in the Bill to remove the operational burden associated with bringing forward new schemes. Prior to 2013, both the NHS and local authorities had, at different times, responsibility for funding both revenue and the capital cost associated with fluoridation schemes. There are no current proposals for cost sharing, but given the cycle of legislation and the infrequency with which such opportunities present themselves, we have taken the decision to include such measures in the Bill.

We have discussed the provisions with both NHS England and NHS Improvement and the Local Government Association, and I can assure the Committee that should we bring forward any plans to cost share in the future, we would seek to fully engage with relevant groups at the earliest opportunity. Under the Bill, any plans to cost share with public sector bodies would be subject to regulations on which there is a requirement to consult.

A precedent has been set over the decades for the funding of water fluoridation schemes. We believe that, to move forward, it would be best to have the flexibility to work collaboratively across industry and the public sector to effect what could be the most significant improvements in oral health that we have seen to date. For those reasons, I ask the hon. Member for Nottingham North to consider not pressing the amendment to a Division.

Clause 128 would transfer the power to initiate, vary or terminate water fluoridation schemes to the Secretary of State. The clause also allows for the Secretary of State to make regulations that will enable the sharing of costs for fluoridation schemes with water undertakers and/or public sector bodies that may receive benefit from such schemes. However, before making any such regulations, the clause imposes a duty on the Secretary of State to consult. The clause also requires the Secretary of State to consult water undertakers on whether any proposal for new fluoridation schemes, or whether any termination or variation of an existing scheme, is operable and efficient prior to undertaking any public consultation, for which there will also continue to be a duty.

The clause requires us to set out in regulations the process for consulting the public, for example on any new proposed schemes. That will ensure that those affected will continue to have a voice. In September, the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland made a joint statement confirming that water fluoridation is an effective public health intervention for improving the oral health of adults and children. Such schemes have been in operation for more than 60 years, and no credible evidence that they cause health harms has emerged. It is time we take action that will enable us to reduce the oral health inequalities across the country, and I commend clause 128 to the Committee.

I turn briefly, and finally, to clause 129. We have a number of existing water fluoridation schemes across England that have been in place for decades. We want to ensure that those existing arrangements can be treated in the same way as any new schemes created using the powers in clause 128. Clause 129 simply provides for the existing arrangements to be treated as if they were made under the new statutory regime for fluoridation. The clause also provides that all previous England fluoridation arrangements shall be treated as if they were entered into between the Secretary of State and the water undertaker. The Secretary of State has the power to modify the detail of these existing arrangements to give effect to this, provided he first seeks to agree the modifications with the water undertaker.

I therefore commend these clauses to the Committee.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I take the Minister’s point about current powers. I agree that they are clearly at the wrong level, because these schemes simply are not coming through, so the system is obviously not working. As I say, I would rather we added what we are putting in the Bill today to what we already have, but I have probably made my point, so I do not intend to press amendments 149 or 150 to a Division.

The Minister has made the point that there are currently no schemes in the system. I hope that when it decides which schemes to prioritise or pilot, the Department might at least look fondly on local authorities—such as the city of Nottingham—that have made such commitments in their council plans.

Finally, on amendment 151, I have heard what the Minister said about cost sharing. That gave me some comfort, so I will not press that amendment to a Division either. I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 149.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 128 and 129 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Steve Double.)

Adjourned till Wednesday 27 October at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

HCB107 Equality and Human Rights Commission

HCB108 Action on Salt and Action on Sugar (joint submission)

HCB109 The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA); the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA); the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB); and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) (joint submission)