HL Deb 02 December 1997 vol 583 cc1237-9

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the independence of the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment in view of the extent of the links which its members have with the chemical industry.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the Government have every confidence in the individual integrity of members of the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, known as COT, and in the advice given by the committee. But the Government are concerned to ensure that other voices and opinions, such as those of consumer groups and other lay interests, are taken into account. We are looking at the best ways to achieve that.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply, which perhaps goes a little distance towards dealing with the problem which I believe exists. Given that this committee has a brief, among other things, for looking at vitamin and mineral supplements and herbal remedies, which are often in direct commercial competition with pharmaceutical products, is she happy—it may be that, in view of her Answer, she is not altogether happy—with the situation where, at the latest listing, 15 out of the 19 members of this committee have declared a financial interest with chemical companies?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I believe that it is a question of getting the balance right on these committees. It is inevitable that many experts will have gained experience through their scientific knowledge and their toxicological skills in addressing issues which are funded through research supported by the pharmaceutical industry. I have looked in detail at the financial interests of the members of COT. Fewer in number than the noble Earl suggested have what is called a direct personal interest. Some have interests in terms of the funding of their research projects and the companies they are associated with. That is the reality of funding for most researchers working in universities and institutes. But as I said in my original Answer, we are concerned to see that other interests and other voices are represented in these considerations.

Earl Howe

My Lords, is not one of the difficulties with COT that it scrutinises all sorts of specialist issues in which the members do not necessarily have the appropriate expertise? Would it not be helpful to invite experts in the particular subject under discussion to add their own knowledge and experience to the committee's proceedings and thus make its pronouncements much more authoritative?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Earl makes a very good point. In the discussions that are going on at the moment between various departments, such as the Department of Health, MAFF and the Medicines Control Agency, the point about taking individual evidence from experts who have a particular remit in areas which are under discussion is being considered. The noble Earl is right. There may be people who have a particular interest in subjects which are under discussion who need to be called in for those particular debates.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, can the Minister say how the members of the committee are appointed and what criteria do the department look for in appointing them?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, members are appointed on the basis of their general expertise in particular areas, although as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said, they may not have the specific interests which are necessary for some of the very detailed considerations. They are appointed on the basis of recommendations from the Public Appointments Committee, which is advised by the Chief Medical Officer.

Lord Rea

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the reasons for the association of many medical scientists with the pharmaceutical industry is that funding for their research by independent bodies such as the universities or the Medical Research Council has been progressively cut over the past 18 years?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I would not necessarily want to comment on the assertion by my noble friend that research moneys have been cut in these areas. But as I said in my initial reply, it is a question of getting the balance right between those people who have a direct financial interest. However, those whose research may be funded means that they have a different financial relationship with the commercial companies involved.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that this Question has arisen out of what is rapidly becoming the Vitamin B6 fiasco? Does she recall that on 24th November, in reply to the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said, Perhaps I may point out that one can get one's recommended daily dose of Vitamin B6 from the consumption of 12 pints of beer a day".—[Official Report, 24/11/97; col. 749.] As it appears that he is promoting the nutritional benefits of beer, will the noble Baroness ask COT to review alcoholic drinks on the same basis as it reviewed Vitamin B6, with a view to limiting the retail sale to perhaps one glass a day over the counter and the rest to be prescribed by a doctor?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister responsible for roads will find that a very attractive idea. When the noble Countess refers to the problems of the relative vitamin content of particular foodstuffs, I am reminded of the exchange that we had in your Lordships' House last week about the importance of folic acid. We discovered that 27 bananas a day had to be eaten to meet the sufficient nutrient requirement. I suspect that this is a question of where the interests of the food business and medical interests overlap. We have to be very clear in distinguishing what one looks at as regards food policy and what one looks at as regards clinical and medical therapy policy. I suspect that one of the things that my noble friend Lord Donoughue and other members of the Government representing MAFF and I would wish to look at is precisely where one draws the boundaries between those two.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, will the noble Baroness recognise that it is not just the financial links that are a cause for concern, but that by their training, their experience, their peer group pressure and the culture that they work in, this tightly knit group of members of these expert committees are not always best equipped to give a balanced view? Will she accept that I am not impugning the integrity of individuals here, but rather the system that puts them in a false position?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl and I are at one in not wishing to impugn the integrity of anybody in this situation. The point that he has raised precisely refers back to that made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about the need to involve individual experts where there is a particular concern to address and where it is necessary to bring in people who may have a different background or specific expertise in a specific subject.

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