Fluoride: Drinking Water

Health written question – answered on 7th June 2010.

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Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

To ask the Secretary of State for Health whether it remains his policy that fluoridation of the water supply in Totton and Southampton should not take place without the consent of a majority of the local population.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns The Minister of State, Department of Health

Section 58 of the Water Act 2003 empowers strategic health authorities (SHAs) to contract with water undertakers to fluoridate a water supply after conducting public consultations. It is essential that any consultation gives people a real opportunity to make their views known and that those views are taken into account before a final decision is made.

The decision by South Central SHA to approve the fluoridation of water supplies to the Southampton area is the subject of a judicial review, which is likely to be heard in the autumn, and so due to the legal challenge the Department is unable to comment.

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Doug Cross
Posted on 8 Jun 2010 8:22 pm (Report this annotation)

This action has been brought before the High Court to challenge the South Central SHA's handling of the Consultation process on fluoridating the water supply in Southampton. In a public poll last year, 72% of those who responded were against fluoridation, yet despite this the SHA took the decision to instruct Southern Water to fluoridate its product.

The dispute centres on the issues raised by the SHA's alleged failure to implement the provisions set out in The Water Fluoridation (Consultation)(England) Act 2005. The Appellant argues that the SCSHA failed
1) to have regard to the Government’s policy that mass fluoridation of drinking water should only go ahead in any particular area if a majority of the local people are in favour of it, and
2) to follow the requirements set out in the Regulations to evaluate “the cogency of the arguments advanced” in the responses to the consultation for and against fluoridation.

The Parliamentary record of discussions (Hansard) on the Bill as it went through Parliament shows that Members quite clearly expected that, if a community refused to accept fluoridation, then the SHA should have regard to that wish, and withdraw its instruction. Even as the dispute raged in Southampton, government spokesmen assured the public that no order would be given to the Water Undertaker to procede if there was not a majority in favour. Despite these assurances, the result of this public poll was ignored by the SHA, implying that the general public was unqualified to hold a valid and informed opinion.

The decision of the Court will have far reaching impacts in English Law. Although this decision will not create a precedent in other areas of law, the verdict of the Court will certainly at least be taken into account in other disputes over the government's interpretation of what 'consultation' really means. There are several other areas in which robust public objection is being voiced to the way in which government departments are currently engaging in consultation with the public, for example over issues such as the new-build nuclear power generation and the nuclear waste disposal programmes in West Cumbria, or the debate on the use of genetically modified crops, foods and livestock.

If the Judicial Review supports the view that the wishes of Parliament are not being observed in this case, and that 'consultation' includes the requirement to ensure that there is effective public participation on whether unpopular policies should be implemented, as is explicitly required in, for example, the Aarhus Convention, then British civil servants will be forced to allow a public veto on unpopular policies that might otherwise be enforced without a public mandate.

Public consultation implies that the consultees should be adequately briefed on all issues, and not coerced into making their decisions based on distorted information. The practice of issuing 'consultation' documents on contentious issues that are little short of political spin in favour of government policy will become increasingly open to public challenge and censure. Such propaganda is designed to obstruct the development of an informed public opinion - if the Court rules in favour of the Appellant, then expect far greater scrutiny of public documentsin future, to ensure that they provide a balanced and fair account of both sides of contentious policies.

For further details on this Judicial Review, see http://www.leighday.co.uk/news/news-archive/southampton-fluo...

Doug Cross, UK Councils Against Fluoridation