Fluoride Action Network

Southampton/Hampshire: Minister refuses to back calls for referendum on water issue

Source: Daily Echo | July 13th, 2009 | By Matt Smith
Location: United Kingdom, England

SOUTHAMPTON MP and Cabinet minister John Denham has refused to back calls for a public vote on whether fluoride should be added to Hampshire tap water.

The newly promoted Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said a referendum, which is supported by the Daily Echo, was not the way forward.

He said more “effective opinion polling” was needed rather than a vote that could open the floodgates for similar polls on every “controversial issue”.

But the MP for Itchen said health bosses needed to prove they had public support to add fluoride to the tap water of nearly 200,000 homes in Southampton, Eastleigh, Totton, Netley and Rownhams or scrap the scheme.

More than 10,000 people had their say during the 14-week public consultation last year, with 72 per cent of responses from those in the affected area opposing the scheme.

In a separate phone poll of 2,000 people, 38 per cent said they were against fluoridation, compared to 32 per cent in favour of it.

Mr Denham, who had already written to the strategic health authority (SHA) urging it to put its decision on hold, said: “I’ve never disguised the fact that I’m personally in favour of fluoridation but there are some issues where you can’t proceed until you have got public confidence.”

Of referenda, he said: “I don’t say they should never happen but I’m not keen on them.

“They are pretty expensive and if you do it on one issue you will be under pressure do it on every single controversial issue.”

“I prefer at the moment to keep the pressure on the SHA to pause their plans for implementation and make renewed efforts to win public confidence for this. I think if they do that there maybe be many much cheaper and easier ways, through effective opinion polling and so on, to establish public support and that’s where the should put their efforts for the moment.”

The SHA insists it followed the legal guidelines required of it before making its decision, but campaigners now argue the only fair way of allowing it to go forward is if there is a majority in a public vote.

Those calls have been backed by some of the area’s high-profile MPs and councillors Hampshire Against Fluoridation has already collected more than 15,000 names on a petition calling on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to step in and force the SHA to reconsider its decision.

Mr Denham said while the weight of written responses were against fluoridation opinion polling had been quite evenly balanced with a large number of undecided people.

But he said: “My impression over the months’ since is that the number of people with reservations has probably risen and that’s why I said the SHA should not go ahead now with it’s plans to implement, because I think this is an issue where you need public confidence and I think they should put their efforts into making their case and be very clear that if they can’t it can’t go ahead.”

However Mr Denham insisted a referendum was not the best way of testing public confidence.

“It’s a very easy thing to say let’s have a referendum but before you go and spend tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money you need to be absolutely certain that that’s the right thing to do, and I’m not convinced,” he said.

“What you’ve got to decide is do you want all major issues to be decided by referendum in this sort of way. You can’t just have single issue referendum. Once you say you’re going to decide local issues by a referendum you very quickly get into the territory of saying everything should be, whether it’s the council’s plans to cut care homes or the council’s plans to cut family centres.”

“Now I don’t actually think that’s the way we should go. It’s also the case that the legal responsible remains with the SHA so a referendum which would cost tens of thousands of pounds to run if you ran it like a local election still wouldn’t determine the outcome.”