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Official Visits (Colchester)

Q11.[20841] Mr. Bob Russell: What plans he has to visit Colchester.

The Prime Minister: I do not have any plans at the moment. I am making many visits, but not to that particular place. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Opposition Members are impossibly badly behaved. [Interruption.] Order. Otherwise, Mr. Blunt, I shall send you out for the rest of the day.

The Prime Minister: I have no plans to visit Colchester.

Mr. Russell: I am disappointed that the Prime Minister will not be able to come to Colchester. Will he give me a message to take back to the parents at the Mulberry Tree day nursery that is facing closure because of the Government's failure to provide sufficient resources to Essex county council whose Labour social services committee is planning to shut the nursery? What advice does the Prime Minister have for those parents, many of whom are lone parents?

The Prime Minister: I do not know the particular circumstances of that day nursery. However, under the settlement announced a few weeks ago by the Deputy Prime Minister, more money will go to social services, and additional money will go to education. A vast sum of additional money will go to education next year.

I understand that there will be difficulties in particular areas, but I say to the parents of the nursery to which the hon. Gentleman referred and to other parents: yes, it will take time to put right the position that we have inherited, but we are putting it right. In the end, those parents will be able to see that the education system, like the national health service, has been improved by a Government who care about both.

Madam Speaker: Order. Time is up. We now come to a statement by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. [Interruption.] Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving do so quietly? [Interruption.] Order. Will hon. Members have their conversations outside the Chamber, please? [Interruption.] Order. Hon. Members should not walk in front of the Front Bench when I am waiting for a statement from the Secretary of State, and they should not move in front of the Secretary of State when I have called him.

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Food Standards Agency

3.32 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dr. John Cunningham): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about our plans for a Food Standards Agency. Copies of this statement and the White Paper will be available from the Vote Office when I sit down.

Public consultation on Professor Philip James's report on how such a body should operate demonstrated an overwhelming consensus about the need to reform the way in which food safety and standards are handled in government. There is widespread support for the principle of separating responsibility for promoting food safety from responsibility for sponsoring the food and farming industries.

The Government have drawn up detailed proposals for the Food Standards Agency in the light of the responses to Professor James's recommendations. Those recommendations provided an excellent foundation for the White Paper, and I pay tribute to Professor James for his work. I am delighted to be able to present our proposals to the House today, on behalf of all the United Kingdom agriculture and health Ministers, in a Government White Paper, "The Food Standards Agency: A Force for Change". I particularly appreciate the support given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health during the drafting of the White Paper, and that of our hon. Friends the Minister for Public Health and the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Thanks are also due to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who chaired the committee.

These proposals are genuinely radical and modernising. They are part of the wider process of reform which we are driving forward across the whole spectrum of government. They are very much in tune with our core objective of making government more open and accountable as the basis for public trust in public services and institutions.

Every family and individual in the land has a direct interest in food safety and food standards. It has long been clear that fundamental reform of the Government machinery for handling these issues is needed if public confidence is to be properly restored. We have quickly grasped this challenge. We have already made important changes to the way in which food safety and standards are tackled since we took office. We have ensured that my Department and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health work effectively as a team, together with our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have significantly increased the amount and quality of information that we make public.

Our proposals for the Food Standards Agency highlight our plans to strengthen and make transparent the way in which government deals with these vital matters. They represent a radical approach in which the clear priority is to protect public health. The agency will be a powerful new body, able to publish its advice to Ministers, free of vested interests and able to act clearly and decisively at all stages of the food chain. It will be directed by a group of independent commissioners who will provide an authoritative and wide range of expertise. They will work together in the public interest to lead an agency which

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promotes the supply of food that meets the standards that consumers expect. It will ensure that people have the information that they need to make proper choices for themselves about the food they eat, for consumers will rightly always decide for themselves about their diet. The agency will aim to help people who want to be healthier to choose a suitable diet; it will not tell people what they must eat.

Every business, from the farm, the small shopkeeper to the largest supermarket, also has a direct interest in ensuring confidence in food. They will gain from an agency which, because it is able to deal effectively with genuine food safety problems to protect consumers, will also have the credibility to reassure consumers when that is necessary.

The agency's functions will include formulation of policy advice, preparation of draft legislation, negotiation in the European Union and other international bodies, research, surveillance, public information and the monitoring of food law enforcement. Its remit will extend across the whole food chain. Where it does not have full operational responsibility, in aspects of farming practices, it will have powers to intervene if it considers that the action taken by other bodies, including the Ministry of Agriculture, does not provide sufficient safeguards for the human food chain. The Meat Hygiene Service will report to the agency rather than to agriculture Ministers.

The agency will be able to draw on the expertise of the network of independent scientific advisory committees, including a new advisory committee on animal feeding stuffs--recommended as long ago as 1992--which will advise both the agency and agriculture Departments.

By eliminating the confusion and uncertainty that have for too long surrounded the arrangements for dealing with food safety and standards issues, the agency will be able to deliver real benefits to consumers, retailers and the food industry alike. In doing so, it will need to command the confidence of all those who have an interest in its work. The agency will achieve this by adopting the best available authoritative scientific advice, and by acting in a way that is open, consultative and transparent. It will ensure that the public have access to clear and consistent information about risk.

The guiding principles that will govern the agency's actions are set out in the White Paper. They will be enshrined in the legislation that brings it into being. They will provide the framework to ensure that the agency will act responsibly and proportionately in the public interest.

The Food Standards Agency will be fully accountable for its actions to the public and to Parliament. It will report to Parliament through health Ministers, but will also work closely with the other Departments of government, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which will retain responsibility for sponsorship of the food industry. The agency will routinely publish the basis for its advice. This will ensure that the public interest is clearly being served when policy decisions are taken and regulations proposed. The appropriate Select Committees of both Houses would, of course, be able to call the chair of the commission and the agency's chief executive to give evidence when appropriate.

The particular interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be fully covered. The Food Standards Agency will be responsible for advising the

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Government on the United Kingdom policy framework on food standards and safety matters. However, we recognise that issues of particular interest to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland arise. We therefore propose that new independent advisory committees will be formed in each of those countries to provide a focus for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish interests in food standards, and to advise the agency's commission and the respective Secretaries of State, or their successors from a devolved Parliament or Assembly. We will also establish Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish executives within the United Kingdom agency to take responsibility for the existing food safety and standards functions carried out by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices.

The agency will need to be properly resourced. The White Paper makes it clear that the Government intend to pursue new methods of raising some of the necessary expenditure from the food sector. We intend to consult closely all who would be affected, including, of course, the small business sector, in drawing up our detailed proposals.

The publication of the White Paper is the commencement of the next phase of public debate. Establishing an agency with such important, wide-ranging responsibilities is a complex process. We will again consult interested parties, across the whole food chain, to ensure that the Food Standards Agency will work effectively in practice and command respect from all those who have an interest in its work. The White Paper is being circulated widely for comment today. My right hon. Friends and I look forward to discussing the way forward with all stakeholders over the coming weeks.

The responses to the consultation will inform the drafting of the Bill to establish the agency. The draft Bill will be circulated for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament later this year. The Bill will be brought before Parliament as soon as the legislative programme permits. In the meantime, the Government are already putting into practice the principles by which the agency will operate. We will continue to ensure that the period of transition is managed successfully. We propose in particular to begin to put in place the agency's governing body on a shadow basis at an appropriate stage in the passage of the legislation through Parliament.

The White Paper contains a radical, coherent, responsible set of proposals for delivering one of our most important manifesto commitments. The Food Standards Agency will constitute a force that is dedicated to working systematically and constructively with all who are involved with the supply of food to the consumer to ensure better food safety standards. The time for change is long overdue. I commend our proposals to the House.

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