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Food Standards Agency

10. Mr. Paice: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he expects to publish his proposals for a food standards agency. [9716]

Dr. David Clark: The Government propose to publish a White Paper in the autumn and intend to introduce legislation to establish a food standards agency as soon as legislative time allows. The legislation will be based on the excellent work of Professor James to which there have been more than 650 responses in a consultative exercise that was launched by the Government. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will today make a statement on the responses received to Professor James's report on an agency and on measures being taken in the interim to improve food safety arrangements.

Mr. Paice: May I take it that it will be two or three years before the agency is up and running? In the meantime, what are the Government and the right hon. Gentleman doing to ensure that the safety of British food is properly communicated? In particular, what is he doing about the many Labour-controlled local education authorities that are still banning the use of beef in school meals despite the fact that the Minister and his colleagues rightly declare that British beef is safe?

Dr. Clark: The hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House of the scandalous state into which the Conservative Government brought the reputation of British food. I chair the Cabinet Committee that is overseeing the situation. We have put in place interim arrangements to rectify the situation and we think that they will be able to deal with any food incidents that occur. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has brought together all his civil servants who deal with food under one management chain, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will soon make further announcements on how he intends to reorganise his Department to deal more effectively with food safety. I concede that the Government have a terrible legacy from the Conservatives, but the Labour Government will put it right.

Mr. Tyler: Can the Chancellor be more specific about the timetable? He has acknowledged that there will be a period for consultation on the White Paper and that that will be followed by legislation. It is likely that the new agency will not be in operation until April 2000. In the meantime, the situation is deteriorating. I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point that that is a legacy from the previous regime, but there is a crisis of confidence in food safety in the United Kingdom now and worry about the import of substandard food--notably beef--from other countries. I press the right hon. Gentleman to tell us what action plan he and his colleagues have now to improve confidence in British food because lack of confidence, which is surely unjustified and perhaps irrational, nevertheless exists.

Dr. Clark: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. A great deal of the public's lack of confidence in British food is unjustified because it and some of the standards that apply to it are very high. Some Opposition Members

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shared our pleasure when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food achieved success in Brussels to ensure that the standards that apply in abattoirs and to beef coming to Britain are the same as those that apply in Britain. We have put in place new, interim measures to bring together the scientists and food experts in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health under a unified chain of command to try to ensure that they can respond more effectively. Further suggestions and improvements will be announced this afternoon by my right hon. Friend.

Focus Groups

11. Mr. Jenkin: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what estimate he has made of the cost to his Department of the proposed arrangements for consulting focus groups. [9717]

Mr. Kilfoyle: We are currently considering ways of consulting and involving ordinary people more in decisions about the delivery of public services. Ideas are at an early stage and I am therefore unable to give estimated costs, but costs to my Department would be met from within existing budgets.

Mr. Jenkin: Under what parliamentary vote would the Minister be spending that money?

Mr. Kilfoyle: It would be the vote accorded to the Cabinet Office (Office of Public Service).

Mr. David Heath: Will the Minister consider arranging for a focus group to be brought together in Somerset so that he can find out whether among ordinary people, as his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy described them earlier, he can find one person who agrees that Somerset county council should be meeting today to reduce its local government expenditure, cutting teachers' jobs and reducing social services as a result of Government diktat, rather than following the expressed wishes of the people through the ballot box?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I would not dream of commenting on the decisions made by Somerset county council, but I will certainly consider Somerset as a potential venue for one of the focus groups that we shall convene in order to find out what people think of the public services on offer.

Mr. Coaker: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in contrast to the cynicism of Opposition Members, the real purpose of focus groups is to improve legislation and policy by finding out what people really think about what the Government are doing? Is not that the way forward for a Government who want to listen and to understand what people have to say? Are not focus groups, far from being the joke that the Opposition seem to think they are, a way forward for the Government which will be welcomed by most people?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I agree that focus groups are one tool which we can use to find out what people want--rather than do as the previous Government did and tell people what they ought to have. It is a bit rich for a Conservative

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Member to criticise a party with an overwhelming mandate that wants to rebuild the bond of trust with the people.

Mr. Gray: I was interested to hear the Minister refer earlier to the people's panel. Does he agree that there is already a people's panel and that this is it? Why does he need another?

Mr. Kilfoyle: When we produce our White Paper on better government, we shall talk about accountability, accessibility, responsiveness, efficiency and open government. Parliamentary accountability will be a key element in that.

Freedom of Information

12. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on his Department's White Paper on freedom of information.[9718]

Dr. David Clark: I refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave earlier to my hon. Friend the member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan).

Mr. Mackinlay: When my right hon. Friend hears Conservative Members praying in aid the nation's security as a way of objecting to the freedom of information legislation that he proposes, does it occur to him that that is Toryspeak for "Please don't reveal the files from the past 18 years"? They must be thinking of items such as Westland, guns to Iraq and some of the peculiar activities of some of the deep forces in the security forces during the industrial relations disputes of years past.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is necessary for us to have full disclosure and to abandon the absurd and undemocratic 30-year rule on the disclosure of public records? Should not we have transparency of government with regard not only to the Tories' stewardship over the past 18 years but to future Governments, too? Will my right hon. Friend end the 30-year rule--an action which would make for a more democratic society in which records were disclosed early?

Dr. Clark: I am actively examining the 30-year rule with a great deal of sympathy for the idea of deciding how we can relax it. There are massive cost and resource implications, and although I hope that we can make progress it may have to take place incrementally.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Will the right hon. Gentleman consider in the White Paper the rule that stops one Government seeing the files of another? Was it not rather difficult for the previous Government to justify the sale of Hawk jets to Indonesia when the decision was made under the previous Labour Administration, a few years after the invasion of East Timor? Will the right hon. Gentleman now publish the advice that was given, with special reference to the ambassador in Indonesia who seemed to think that it was a good idea for the Indonesians to invade East Timor? Let us have it all out in the open.

Dr. Clark: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. The agreement that files from

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outgoing Governments be closed is a long-standing convention of the House and of government, and it would be inadvisable to change it. If we do relax the 30-year rule, it is more likely that the information that he seeks will be made available. That goes without saying.



Q1. Sir Michael Spicer: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 30 July. [9736]

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I attended a meeting of the Labour party's national executive. I had meetings with Cabinet colleagues and others. Later today, I shall host a reception at 10 Downing street.

Sir Michael Spicer: Looking back on the past 96 days, and with the benefit of hindsight, what does the Prime Minister think has been his worst mistake--losing control over interest rates, raiding pension funds, robbing the reserves, or what?

The Prime Minister: Certainly our greatest triumph has been to remove the Conservative Government. As for my greatest mistake, that is for me to know and for the hon. Gentleman to find out.

Mr. Fabian Hamilton: Will the Prime Minister join me in expressing sympathy for all those killed and injured by the appalling bomb in Jerusalem this morning? Will he urge all those involved in the middle east peace process to continue their efforts towards a lasting peace?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House when I express my deepest sympathy for all those families who are bereaved in Israel today and for the families of those injured. It was an appalling terrorist outrage. Our deepest condolences go to the people of Israel and to the Jewish community in this country. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do all we can to work for peace in the middle east.

Mr. Hague: On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to associate myself with the Prime Minister's last remarks.

Given the statement of the Financial Secretary yesterday that the Government would investigate tax avoidance schemes relating to offshore trusts in Jersey, what advice does the Prime Minister have for the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, the noble Lord Simon, who has £1 million invested in an offshore trust in Jersey in order to pay less tax?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that there has been any more vile and scurrilous campaign than the one mounted against David Simon. This is a man who has given up earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to serve the Government and to give public service, and has done so without any payment at all. Instead of vilifying him, the Conservative party should support that

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initiative. It only shows how remote the Conservative party is from the business community that it should attack him in that way.

Mr. Hague: Is there not a strong smell of hypocrisy coming from the Government? Does the Prime Minister recall his policy statement three years ago, which said:

and made specific reference to Jersey? Is it not breathtaking hypocrisy to criticise that and then for a Minister to take advantage of it? Is it not time that members of the Government stopped preaching one thing and doing another?

The Prime Minister: The ones who have been preaching one thing and doing another are Conservative Members who say that they want close links with business, but vilify a business person who comes in to give service free to his country. Lord Simon will be subject to the same rules as everybody else. The campaign mounted by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is absolutely disgraceful, and I am surprised that the Leader of the Opposition associates himself with it.

Mr. Hague: The fact that a Minister is not taking any payment does not mean that he does not have to follow everybody else's rules. What advice has the Prime Minister given to the Minister about the suitability of handling gas liberalisation and energy taxation while hanging on to £2 million-worth of shares in BP? Does the Prime Minister think that that is an acceptable conflict of interest?

The Prime Minister: The Minister has obeyed all the rules all the way throughout. If the right hon. Gentleman knows of anything to the contrary, perhaps he will come to the Dispatch Box and say so. The Minister has retained the BP shares because he is obliged to do so. Having been the chairman of BP, if he got rid of them he would fall foul of the rules on insider trading. That is precisely what happened in the case of the former Deputy Prime Minister and of Paul Channon, now Lord Channon. If the right hon. Gentleman knows of any case in which the Minister has disobeyed the rules, let him come to the Dispatch Box and say so, or withdraw that slur.

Mr. Hague: Is the Prime Minister aware that "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" states:

Will the Prime Minister tell us how he reconciles the European Union documents which I have here, on agreement on liberalisation of gas supply and restructuring the Community framework for the taxation of energy products, with holding £2 million-worth of shares in one of the world's largest energy companies?

The Prime Minister: That is really not good enough. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to make an allegation of that nature, it is not good enough. I have explained why the shares were not disposed of--because it would have been wrong to dispose of them. The Minister was acting on the advice of the permanent secretary at the

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Department of Trade and Industry and entirely in accordance with the rules of "Questions of Procedure for Ministers". If the right hon. Gentleman has any evidence at all of any rule broken, let him say so. The past Conservative Government indulged in appalling conduct, but just because they did it does not mean that they can slur us with doing what they used to do.

Mr. Hague: Was it not foolish of the Prime Minister to place the hon. Gentleman in a position where he is the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness of the United Kingdom, but is not supposed to take decisions that have a bearing on one of the country's largest companies? Has the Prime Minister not noticed that even his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing)--he knows a thing or two about shareholding--has said this morning

Is that not a fair statement?

The Prime Minister: No, it is not a fair statement, for the reason that I have just given. I asked the right hon. Gentleman, quite specifically, to state what rule had been broken--three times I asked him and he failed to do so. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) will be out in a moment.

The Prime Minister: I asked the Leader of the Opposition to state what rule had been broken, and he failed to do so because no rule has been broken. The Minister has behaved with complete propriety throughout. He has followed precisely the procedure that was followed in the case of the Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Government. I really think that the right hon. Gentleman should go away and grow up and ask more sensible questions.

Mr. Hague: When the Prime Minister gets patronising, Madam Speaker, you know that he has lost the argument. The fact is that the Minister has held shareholdings in BP while appearing to make decisions that would have related to BP. Is it not time that the Prime Minister got a grip on that matter and took a leaf out of the BP annual accounts, written by the noble Lord himself, which state:

Is not that the standard by which the Government should be judged?

The Prime Minister: My noble Friend has maintained the highest standards of openness and probity. For the fourth time, the right hon. Gentleman has come to the Dispatch Box and failed to say what rule has been broken; if he believes that rules have been broken, perhaps he should go outside the House and repeat that allegation where it can be properly tested. He will not do so, because he knows that he cannot. He was part of a Government who fell beneath the proper standards. Lord Simon has behaved with complete probity and acted on proper advice throughout. The fact that the Conservative party is

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attacking him for working for free in the public service shows how remote it is from business people in Britain today.

Ms Stuart: I welcome the Government's initiative to set up literacy summer schools--two schools in my constituency will benefit--but how will we monitor their success and their long-term viability?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is an important initiative. It will enable us to raise standards of literacy and numeracy in our schools which, I am afraid, are still far below those in other countries. Indeed, it is the sad case that almost 50 per cent. of our 11-year-olds do not reach the proper standards of literacy and numeracy. The literacy summer schools will be part of the programme that will help to raise standards. That is the only way of getting the 21st-century education that we want and deserve.

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