Leaders: UK-wide solution would be preferable on folic acid

Many pregnant women aren't getting enough folic acid. Picture: Bill Henry
Many pregnant women aren't getting enough folic acid. Picture: Bill Henry
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The fortification of flour in Scotland could upset the delicate balance by adding to the levels of the additive present in other foodstuffs

The warning from public health minister Maureen Watt that Scotland could go it alone over how to increase provision of folic acid and thus reduce the risk of birth defects is motivated by the best of intentions.

That many pregnant women aren’t getting enough folic acid and the risk of conditions like spina bifida is increasing for their unborn babies is a major cause for concern and must be addressed by UK ministers. But the issue throws a fresh and perhaps timely slant on the UK’s devolution system of government. That Scotland has the power to go its own way on this issue is not in dispute, but is it really practical or wise to impose its own rules, which would make the fortification of flour with folic acid mandatory north of the Border?

The frustration with Westminster dragging its heels on this matter for 16 years is understandable, but what’s imperative is retaining a balance across all foodstuffs. If bread is to be loaded with folic acid just in Scotland, should we be worried about the level of the additive present in other foodstuffs north of the Border? The concern is that Scots end up with too much folic acid in their diet which can then start to mask symptoms of other conditions.

The UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition warned previously that the introduction of mandatory fortification of flour would require new data on current levels of folic acid blood concentration levels, to ensure that it does not go beyond the recommended levels. Perhaps more importantly, a process is also needed to allow the monitoring of trends in future. This again is something which would surely be best done on a UK-wide basis. Indeed, in 2007 it was found that more than 100,000 people across the UK were exceeding recommended levels because of consumption of foods fortified with folic acid on a voluntary basis already, as well as growing supplement use.

It all throws into sharp focus the need to strike a balance. A pan-UK approach would then seem to be the more judicious approach and the Scottish Government has to consider that making a unilateral change in Scotland upsets that delicate balance. Manufacturers seem to acknowledge that such a dual approach is impractical and say that if the Scottish Government demands a separate approach is taken north of the Border on folic acid additives, they are likely to do this with all their flour-based products across the UK.

And in fairness to Ms Watt, she seems to prefer a UK-wide solution on the issue. Indeed, it would not be the first time that the SNP administration has indulged in a bit of brinkmanship to give their Westminster counterparts a push. Quite why it has taken the UK government all of 16 years to address this issue is a mystery. The scientific advice seems clear enough and with the problem being particularly acute in places like Scotland and Northern Ireland it cannot come as a complete surprise to Whitehall that the devolved administrations are starting agitate. There should be no more prevarication over a serious health issue – this matter has to be settled as soon as possible.

Time to reflect on role of assembly

The changing face of Scottish society has been evident in a number of radical shifts in recent years and calls to remove the role of religious observance from the school curriculum again shows things aren’t standing still.

The introduction of gay marriage two years ago was a victory for equality campaigners over the more conservative, largely religious lobby. But it would be a mistake to think this undermines the role and influence of the church in Scottish public life and importance of faith to hundreds of thousands of Scots. The Church of Scotland alone has a remarkable 400,000 members from a Scots population of about five million. More than half of people still identify themselves as religious, mainly Christian, according to the latest census.

The need for change to the religious observance slot is not immediately obvious. Although this is enshrined in statute, schools can already call it “Time for Reflection” and it does not have to take the form of worship. But reports from the Arts and Humanities Research Council on Collective Worship and Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life suggest that it could be time to have another look at the issue. The Humanist Society of Scotland’s chairman is premature in suggesting it should be scrapped. But there seems no reason why ministers should not undertake a review of the practice, given it has been ten years since the last one.

There is no doubt school assembly can play a key role in the fostering a sense of community among pupils. It is surely, then, worth considering to what extent religious observance is appropriate, or whether a change could better reflect the diversity of modern Scotland.