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Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): May I say how much I welcome the consultation paper and in particular the fact that it takes on board the wider brief of nutrition and not just food safety? Can my right hon. Friend offer some more assurances about the effectiveness of the powers of the agency and the way in which it will carry out its powers of enforcement? What type of consumer liaison will be conducted so that people can be sure that we will see improvements in health standards,

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and consumer confidence is retained in that extremely important agency so that it is a real consumers' champion?

Dr. Cunningham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome supportive comments.

As set out in the White Paper, there is a division of responsibility between the Food Standards Agency and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. It would be absurd if my right hon. Friend did not have some responsibility for matters of nutrition and diet, given their important role in so many of the worst illnesses with which he and his colleagues must grapple--for example, cardiovascular disease and others. That division of responsibility is clearly set out in the White Paper and I have no doubt, because nutrition is one of controversial issues, that there will be some warm, if not heated, public debate about it.

As for the second important question my hon. Friend raised about liaison, of course an agency of this kind will have permanent lines of communication open not just to the Secretary of State for Health and, where necessary, other Government Departments, but to local authorities, because of their important role in such matters. Last, but by no means least, it will have such lines of communication with consumers, consumer organisations and their representatives.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): The Minister said in his statement that the Government are keen to put into practice the principles governing the agency. They include giving the consumer the right information with which to make proper choices. In the light of that principle, will the Minister reconsider his decision to ban beef on the bone?

Dr. Cunningham: No. I remind the hon. Lady and the House that, as yet, we and our scientists still have no idea of the incubation period of CJD. The hon. Lady should bear that in mind when she thinks about the actions that I take in respect of safeguarding public health in that matter. The principle according to which I acted in that regard was exactly the same as that followed by the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), when she held my office. She made an almost identical statement about the existence of a very small risk, but nevertheless added that particular part of the animal's anatomy to the list of specified risk materials.

I am not so sure that we would have got the decision that was reached in Brussels today if I had not taken that action.

Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West): I, too, welcome the Minister's statement and the proposals set out in it, as they have clearly been influenced by the excellent James report. What proposals does he envisage will be necessary to establish more consistent standards governing the enforcement of food hygiene regulations by trading standards officers and the environmental health officers of local authorities?

Dr. Cunningham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. The agency will monitor and establish common standards that, of course, in a number of respects local authority officers will have to enforce. As I have

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made clear already in answer to questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House, local authority officers will continue to have a very important role in ensuring that those standards are implemented and that the public are properly safeguarded. That is an essential part of the approach of the Food Standards Agency.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Who will be responsible for licensing genetically modified products and when will the Ministry reach a determination on the licence applications currently before it?

Dr. Cunningham: The overall authority for the licensing of novel foods will now pass to the Food Standards Agency, but the general processes will be exactly the same as they are now.

Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the credibility of the agency will depend entirely on the quality and independence of the scientific research that guides it? Can he confirm that, as I think he said in his statement, the agency will be entirely free to commission its research where it thinks fit in the interests of proper science? What ministerial guidelines, if any, will the agency have in respect of those issues of commissioning research?

Dr. Cunningham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the whole success of any agency of this sort would be completely undermined if it did not, from the outset, establish and sustain credibility about its independence. As for his specific question about research, I repeat that the agency will have the absolute right to decide where and on what terms it commissions its future scientific research programme. It will, of course, have available to it existing Government agencies, but, equally, it will have available to it options in the private sector; there will be no ministerial interference in the making of that sort of decision by the agency.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): The report seems to suggest that devolved Parliaments and Assemblies will be subject to a requirement to consult the agency. Surely a requirement for any devolved Parliament or Assembly to consult with an agency creates a dangerous precedent and strikes at the independence of that Parliament or Assembly.

Dr. Cunningham: I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads the proposals in the White Paper, his concern will be assuaged. He will see that we carefully made separate arrangements under a UK umbrella body for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and we have anticipated, as far as we are able to, the possible changes that will occur following devolution to Scotland and Wales. In view of all he has said in the Chamber and elsewhere in the past, I am rather sorry that hon. Gentleman did not say a word of thanks about the decision on beef in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): In congratulating my right hon. Friend and our admirable and joint hon. Friend the Minister of State on the step toward a Food Standards Agency, may I say that it will be especially welcomed by environmental health officers in the city of Birmingham and elsewhere, as it will

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underpin the important work that they do on behalf of the public to enforce proper standards of food safety? In that context, may I urge my right hon. Friend to base the agency in the city of Birmingham?

Dr. Cunningham: That was the first of many bids, no doubt; but, as we have already made clear, the agency will be based in London. We think that that is the right decision, although I recognise the outstanding merits of Birmingham and my hon. Friend's ceaseless advocacy of them. I repeat that environmental health officers are an important part of the process. I have no doubt that they will want to give us their views on the White Paper officially, but I shall make it clear to them that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will be happy to meet them for informal discussions about the way forward.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): In answer to an earlier question and in his statement, the Minister indicated that the agency would have responsibility in respect of nutrition, and he welcomes that inclusion. However, if we walk into any newsagent in this country, we find shelves laden with magazines that are full of good nutritional ideas; we can turn on daytime television and watch all sorts of programmes about good nutrition and cooking; and the largest-selling sector of the book market at Christmas time is cookery books, followed by gardening books telling us how to grow decent vegetables. Will the Minister tell us what else he thinks the agency will bring to the table in the field of nutrition?

Dr. Cunningham: As in other areas of its responsibility, the agency will bring independent advice--advice that is free of any commercial interest--and give that advice in a clear and consistent way which the public will be able to understand.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Against the background of the first E. coli 0157 outbreak at Redhouse

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dairy in my constituency and the anecdotal evidence given me on 6 January by the West Lothian and Midlothian farmers union, is there a policy on the increasing spreading of raw sludge, with all the phosphate and other consequences that there might be for disease? Will either the agency or the Department be able to do something about what may be an increasing practice and is certainly a potentially dangerous one?

Dr. Cunningham: We are aware of the concern in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere; the issue is being pursued jointly with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We recognise that there are important public health issues involved. Guidelines already exist and we are awaiting further expert advice that will be acted on as necessary to protect the public and, once again, put the public interest first.

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