Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): May I first thank the Minister for his statement and for the fact that we were able to have adequate time to study it and to look at the White Paper? I am glad that his computers are fixed on this occasion.

We very much welcome any moves that will help our food to be even safer than it is now, and indeed to enhance consumer confidence in our already excellent food industry.

14 Jan 1998 : Column 354

I welcome the Minister's commitment to widespread consultation on the policy, and thank him for providing the opportunity for pre-legislation scrutiny. That is right, when important and detailed matters such as this are being considered.

The Minister says that there has been a loss of confidence in British food. I wonder how he reacts to the statement made by Safeway, which referred, on the publication of Professor James's report, to

Perhaps the Minister could also comment on Safeway's view of the agency. It says that it does not believe that the Food Standards Agency, however structured, could have anticipated BSE or E. coli 0157, or that it will prevent issues of possibly similar severity in the future. It is important for the Minister to give us a view on those matters.

May I ask the Minister what criteria he will use to determine whether the Food Standards Agency is being successful? Does he intend to set a target for the reduction of reported incidents of food poisoning, or will he consider another target--possibly the elimination from the food chain of harmful pathogens such as salmonella or campylobacter? By what objective measures will he assess public confidence in Britain's food once the agency has started work? Professor James did not seem to think that much would happen. He said this morning on the radio:

that would be an achievement. Professor James hoped that the rate might fall in three to five years. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what his ambitions for the agency are.

How will the agency determine its priorities? I know that it is to produce a corporate plan. Will that plan be the subject of ministerial decision making? If so, which Ministers will decide on the objectives and policies that the agency will pursue? How will the agency change its policies from time to time, in the light of changing situations? Can the Minister tell us whether the present budgets relating to food science, which will underpin much of the agency's work, will be sustained and developed further?

How will the Minister ensure that the agency continually recognises that people, as consumers, want to make their own choices on the safe food that they eat? What safeguards can he offer the House? Can he assure us that the agency's clear, objective agenda will not be hijacked by those who would be labelled food faddists, and who would want the agency to move into what has been described an extension of the nanny state? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with Marks and Spencer, which has said that well-being, in terms of the food that people eat, cannot be imposed on the customer?

A central part of the Minister's statement was his comment on the agency's funding. The White Paper talks of the agency's own new costs being £100 million, of which £35 million are covered by other charges; but what exactly are the new methods of raising money to which the Minister has referred? The White Paper speaks of some form of licensing or registration scheme. Will all food premises have to be licensed? If so, how will they qualify for the licence, and on what criteria might the licence be removed? I should like to know more about that from the Minister.

14 Jan 1998 : Column 355

The White Paper also talks of the £120 million to £150 million that local authority enforcement costs. The implication of paragraph 8.19 is that in some way, by gradual attrition, the food industry--from the farm right through to the supermarket and the restaurant--will have to pick up the tab. May we know more precisely what proportion of the costs will be placed on industry, and when the process of costs passing back will stop?

Will the Minister confirm--as the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has--that 44 per cent. of all reported food poisoning cases result from consumers buying meals from restaurants, hotels and other catering establishments? Does he agree that a key ingredient to achieving safer food is the proper enforcement of existing laws? The current law is unevenly enforced, so how will the agency tackle that problem? What consultations will he have with local authorities to find out how much extra money they will require to carry out their duties under the new agency?

Will the Minister give more detail of how the new agency will fulfil its legislative responsibilities? Will it have to put to Ministers all future proposals on new or revised food law? Will it be involved in environmental policy? There is concern about the disposal of bio-solids and the effect on the food chain. Will the new agency be involved in that?

Will the Minister tell the House a little more about the lines of accountability and the way in which the new agency will operate? He talked about openness, and we applaud that, but will he reassure us that the supply of information that is commercial in confidence currently given to his officials will not be cut off, as it enables them to be effective in European Union negotiations and in other areas in which the agency will operate? There is a worry that such openness may be against the interests of the dissemination of information.

In the world of food, many people give consumers alternative advice. Will the agency act as referee to give clear guidance when such information is made available? In his statement, the Minister referred to the agency's ability to interfere in farming practice if it considers that

for human health. Will he confirm that the agency will have the unique power to overrule him and his Department? If so, to whom will the agency be accountable for such actions? How would the agency have reacted if it had received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee the advice about beef on the bone? Would it have implemented the ban, or would it have followed the line taken in the Minister's statement and ensured that the public had the knowledge to make up their own minds?

The Opposition welcome the arrival of the Food Standards Agency. [Laughter.] It is interesting to note that, my having asked the Government searching and probing questions about a serious new agency, the best that we can get from them is guffaws of laughter. Do they take the matter seriously?

Dr. Cunningham: I welcome the comments at the beginning of the right hon. Gentleman's statements, but the remarks that he made at the end rang a little hollow after his long litany of critical statements in between. He seems to be giving the Food Standards Agency a

14 Jan 1998 : Column 356

one-candlepower welcome. I can tell him that the agency is widely welcomed across the country by consumers, consumer organisations and major players in the industry.

The right hon. Gentleman began by saying that he believed that this is the right way forward, and clearly we share that view. He asked me some questions about the Safeway organisation. I shall tell the House what Safeway had to say following the publication of the report by Professor Philip James. It said that Safeway

That is a pretty clear statement of support from Safeway for the Government's proposal.

The right hon. Gentleman then asked me whether the Food Standards Agency could have prevented or foreseen serious food problems, such as BSE or E. coli.

Mr. Jack: That is what Safeway asked.

Dr. Cunningham: Sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman put the question. It is difficult for any organisation, within or outside government, to foresee certain problems, but the agency might have been more guarded, more careful and more cautious in its approach to what was happening in the animal food chain than the Conservative Government ever were in the lead-up to the disastrous consequences that flowed from their failures, and from the widespread infection of the national herd with BSE.

The right hon. Member asked about criteria and targets for the Food Standards Agency. The White Paper proposes that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will give up all responsibility for these matters. The agency's responsibility will be to report in the first place to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and it will be for the Government and the agency in consultation, following what I hope will be a successful passage of the legislation, to decide whether targets--financial, operational or otherwise--should be established and on what basis. In response to the second part of what the right hon. Gentleman said on the matter, I do not anticipate that the Food Standards Agency will have the capability to eliminate coliforms, enteroviruses or pathogenic micro-organisms.

Mr. Jack: It will not tackle the problem.

Next Section

IndexHome Page