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Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that it comes easy to me to be able to support this clear-cut manifesto commitment, unlike some of the others that we have been hearing about lately, in the knowledge that the agency will provide a very big counterweight to the large vested interests in the food-producing industries? But will he take on board one

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problem? He says that the body will be independent of Ministers and of the food industries. If the agency is not truly independent of those wild-eyed people in the Common Market who make all those tin-pot proposals month after month, and if people in the agency find themselves tarred with that brush, the instincts of the British people will turn against it. I tell my right hon. Friend to have a word with those in the agency and those who are in the environmental health industries in local authorities, and to tell them that, if they are truly independent, they will have enough initiative to find out what has to be done without going over there to find the answers.

Dr. Cunningham: It is not always the case that my hon. Friend and I agree on policy issues, as he made clear, but I am always happier when we do, so I work hard to maximise the opportunities for that. I am grateful to him for his comments. He is right to highlight the crucial importance of securing and maintaining complete independence for the agency. Food law and standards are increasingly international. If our industries want to continue to export successfully, they have to meet not just United Kingdom standards, but international standards, so, whether we like it or not, there will always be a role for the European Union in these matters. My hon. Friend described some people in Brussels in a rather colourful way. I am delighted to tell him that the Commission has just approved the export certified herd scheme for British beef from Northern Ireland.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. It seems that I need to remind the House that statements are an extension of Question Time and are not a time for Back Benchers to make long comments. We have had only four questions in three quarters of an hour. We cannot proceed in that way. I now ask for brisk questions, and brisk answers from the Minister.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): May I first say to the right hon. Gentleman that I welcome the fact that he will be publishing a Bill for pre-legislative discussion? That is a desirable step.

I understand that the agency will be a free-standing executive agency with the right--indeed, the duty--to set standards as to composition, sale, manufacture, and so on. Clearly, there will be legal requirements on producers, and, no doubt, legal offences will be created. Can he tell the House the extent of the control that the House will be able to exercise over the setting of those legal obligations and the creation of those offences? If the agency is to be truly independent, it is difficult to see what the line of accountability can be.

On a further point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), given that there is a single market within the European Union in food and foodstuffs, what is the relationship between the standards being set by the agency and such standards as may be set by counterpart institutions in other member states and by the European Union itself?

Dr. Cunningham: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. We shall certainly publish the draft legislation for consultation. He is right that it will be a

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free-standing, independent agency, but when it proposes changes in food standards or food hygiene there will have to be legislation. The agency will not have the power simply to change things. Change will have to be based on legislation which will have to pass through the House. The principal aim and objective of the agency will be to focus on food standards and food hygiene, as we made clear at the beginning of the White Paper. That will be its role. Where it believes that circumstances are not adequate, it will be able to recommend that the law is changed, but it will not be able to change the law without the proper legislative process in the House.

That also applies to the final important question that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised in respect of the European Union. As he knows, because he has held the job that I now have the privilege of holding, we work increasingly to harmonise law on these matters exactly because our food industries, like those in other countries, have to compete and survive in a global marketplace, and we want the same standards to apply on a level playing field.

Ms Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): Will the agency ensure that adequate standards are applied to the production of animal feedstuffs so that another disaster such as BSE cannot happen, particularly in the light of Professor James's key recommendations that the agency's remit should apply to the entire food chain?

Dr. Cunningham: My hon. Friend has asked an important question, the answer to which is yes it will. As I said in the statement, the Government propose to accept the recommendations of Professor Lamming, who, in a report to the previous Administration, suggested that there should be an advisory committee on animal feedstuffs. It is to the shame of the previous Administration, given the circumstances that prevailed, and what we now know, that the Conservative Government refused to act on that recommendation of the Lamming report. We shall do so.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): May I ask the Minister to give a little more detail about the negotiations with Europe? When a matter related to food is discussed--usually subject, as he will know, to qualified majority voting--a great deal of negotiation takes place and there is inevitably give and take. Will there be a secretariat in Brussels associated with the Food Standards Agency? How will it work in practice in terms of advice that the agency gives to Ministers at the negotiation stage before they vote?

Dr. Cunningham: That is an important question. The Food Standards Agency will work in exactly the same way as the Health and Safety Executive advises Ministers now, and has done for some time in respect of EU legislation. It will present the case, and perhaps negotiate in detail in some of the working committees, but the final decisions, as always, will rest with Ministers.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw): As the Member of Parliament for Motherwell and Wishaw, the constituency at the centre of last year's E. coli outbreak, I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Many of my close friends were hospitalised and some of

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the people in my own street tragically lost their lives. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will understand when I ask for an assurance that the No. 1 priority of the agency will be public health and the consumers at the end of the line, not food retailers or producers.

Dr. Cunningham: I can give my hon. Friend the important assurance that he seeks on behalf of his constituents. It is the first guiding principle set out in the White Paper that public health should be the first priority of a Food Standards Agency. In addition, I can tell my hon. Friend that on coming to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I put the health and well-being of people and the environment at the top of its agenda. We shall have powerful new forces within the Government and in the agency and, needless to say, in the Department of Health, putting the health and well-being of the people of this country at the top of the nation's agenda.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Food standards in this country are exceptionally high. The Government propose that they should be higher still by the establishment of this agency, which will be extremely costly. The costs will be borne eventually by the consumer. What guarantees can the Minister give to the consumers that food imported into the United Kingdom will be of the same very high standard?

Dr. Cunningham: The hon. Lady is right; we have pretty high standards of food hygiene in this country. Let me pay tribute to our leading food manufacturers and food industries, which are able to compete successfully globally because they set excellent standards. However, like most industries, the industry has a very long and poorly performing tail which does not meet the high standards of the best in the sector.

The hon. Lady said that the agency would be costly. Let me say that the consequences of BSE, E. coli outbreaks and salmonella poisoning are colossal when compared with the likely realistic cost of such an agency. That is just the financial consequences. In terms of the health of the people and the deaths that have resulted from the problems, the cost to the people affected is immeasurable.

The people of this country are going to get a bargain out of the Food Standards Agency which will be of great value to them in terms of the quality and safety of the food that they eat and in terms of their health and well-being. Let me say again that we are working in the European Union wherever possible to ensure a level playing field for our farmers and our food industry. That is why I remind the hon. Lady and the House that from 1 January this year no beef can come into this country unless it has been subject to the same rigorous safeguards as beef produced in Britain.

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