Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


The Food Standards Committee has agreed to the following Report:—




1. The background against which the draft Food Standards Bill was published is a fairly long and complex one. The idea of setting up a Food Standards Agency featured in the Labour Party manifesto prior to the 1997 General Election; and while still Leader of the Opposition, the Rt Hon Tony Blair MP commissioned Professor Philip James, Director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, to prepare a report setting out a proposed blueprint for such an Agency. Upon taking Office, the new Government published the James Report for consultation.[1] At the conclusion of the consultation period, MAFF stated that responses indicated "widespread public support" for the Agency;[2] as a result the Government set up a Joint Food Safety and Standards Group comprised of MAFF and DoH officials, and drew up a White Paper on proposals for the Agency which was issued on 14 January 1998.[3]

2. As the Government was preparing this White Paper, the Agriculture Committee in the summer of 1997 embarked upon an inquiry into food safety which inevitably dwelt in some detail on the James Report and the Government's intentions for a Food Standards Agency. During the course of this inquiry the White Paper was published, and the Committee was able to incorporate an examination of these proposals into its eventual report which was agreed on 22 April 1998 and published shortly thereafter.[4] During the course of this inquiry the Agriculture Committee received 150 memoranda and held 10 oral evidence sessions. The Agriculture Committee also made clear its desire to subject the eventual draft legislation to detailed scrutiny but stressed that it would only do so if sufficient time was given for such a course of action. We acknowledge the excellent work done by the Agriculture Committee in this area, which has proved invaluable to our Committee in its examination of the proposals for the Agency enshrined in the draft Bill, and which will continue to be of value to the House once the Bill is formally introduced, as expected, in the near future.

3. The public consultation period for the White Paper concluded on 16 March, and the Government issued its reply to the Agriculture Committee's report on 26 June.[5] This reply did not specify when the draft of the legislation setting up the Agency would be published, but welcomed the Agriculture Committee's intention to examine the draft Bill: it said nothing as to the form that pre-legislative scrutiny would take, except to state that such scrutiny would run in parallel with public consultation on the legislative proposals. It was clear that the planned time-table for the draft Bill was slipping, and ministers have confirmed to us that there were two main reasons for this delay.[6] Firstly, the Government was facing difficulties in drawing up draft proposals for the levy scheme which the White Paper had announced was intended to part-fund the Agency. Secondly, the possibility of the proposed Bill for reform of the House of Lords leading to severe legislative congestion was enough to make the Government slim down its legislative programme for the 1998-99 Session. The Food Standards Bill was as a result not referred to in the Queen's Speech[7] (although the draft Bill was mentioned by the Prime Minister in response to Opposition queries[8] at the beginning of the debate on the Loyal Address) and so found itself amongst the first reserve of Bills for the current Session.

4. The draft Bill upon which we are reporting was finally laid before the House as a Command Paper some twelve days before we were set up as a Committee, on Wednesday 27 January, as part of a consultation document on the draft legislation.[9] We welcome the decision to make the draft Bill available in the form of a Command Paper, a practice recommended by the Social Security Committee in its report on the draft legislation on pensions on divorce last Session.[10] We hope that this example will be followed in all future cases where the Government makes draft legislation available for public and Parliamentary scrutiny.

The Food Standards Committee

5. On 8 February the House of Commons passed a Resolution setting up this ad hoc select committee of thirteen Members "to report on the draft Bill on the Food Standards Agency". At our first meeting we decided to call our Committee the Food Standards Committee. We are the first Committee of this kind to be established by the House, and are part of a series of procedural developments with regard to pre-legislative scrutiny adopted in the wake of the First Report of the Modernisation Committee in Session 1997-98 on the Legislative Process (HC 190). Our membership is drawn in part from the two departmental select committees with most interest in the draft Bill, the Agriculture and Health Committees, and has been given powers analogous to those of a departmental select committee.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

6. In the past, departmental select committees have taken an occasional interest in draft legislation and legislative proposals, but aside from the quinquennial Armed Forces Bill procedure and the seldom used special standing committee procedure there was no real focus or expertise within the House for pre-legislative scrutiny. Since the aforementioned Report from the Modernisation Committee, however, both the Social Security and Trade and Industry select committees have—at the request of the Government—undertaken enquiries into draft legislation,[11] and there are currently enquiries into draft legislation being undertaken by a joint Committee of the Lords and Commons and by a special standing committee.[12] We are therefore but one of a series of approaches being taken by the House in the current session to improve the quality of its scrutiny of draft legislation.

7. The Resolution passed by the House on 8 February set a deadline for us to report of 31 March, a week beyond the deadline given by the consultation document for public submissions and memoranda. This period of just over seven weeks is by any standards a very short one for an inquiry by a Parliamentary committee. The Agriculture Committee in its Report on Food Safety had stated that having sufficient time for scrutiny of the draft legislation was essential if the process were to yield genuine benefits.[13] Their inquiry lasted for almost nine months, from the announcement of the terms of reference to their agreeing their report.[14] It is far from certain that seven weeks could be considered sufficient time for any inquiry. Given the nature of the Bill, an ad hoc committee was probably the most appropriate mechanism for allowing proper scrutiny of the Bill; but Members have very varied and often onerous Parliamentary responsibilities and the nature of the Committee and the intensity of its evidence taking inevitably created additional burdens for Members.

8. Given the way in which a select committee undertakes an inquiry, by requesting written evidence, taking oral evidence, and finally producing a report, it is clear that seven weeks is a far from ideal amount of time. We are concerned that this first exercise in ad hoc committee pre-legislative scrutiny should have taken place under difficult time constraints and hope that in future more realistic deadlines for the examination of legislative proposals will be set by the Government where possible. We acknowledge the importance of getting the Bill on the statute book as soon as possible and likewise acknowledge the commendable thoroughness with which the Government has so far run its consultation on the proposals for the Agency. However, if the Government intends to treat seriously the House's expressed desire to scrutinise legislation more effectively then it must allow a Committee of the House sufficient time in which to conduct such scrutiny.

9. Another of our concerns is that we were only set up after the draft Bill was published. If we had been set up before publication of the draft Bill, a lot of the preliminary work with which any Committee has to concern itself at the outset of an inquiry could have been done before the consultation period had started, leaving that short period exclusively for work on the draft Bill itself. The Trade and Industry Committee, albeit with reference to the Modernisation Committee's reference to departmental select committees, recommended that committees be given sufficient time to prepare themselves for the scrutiny of draft legislation.[15] We recommend that in future any ad hoc committee is set up by the House before the draft legislation which it is to examine becomes available.

10. A further concern is the manner is which our inquiry has had to run in parallel with the public consultation. It would have been far more desirable for us to have had the benefit of all the public submissions on the draft Bill made to the Government during the consultation period and then to have been able to consider each submission thoroughly. Instead we have had to seek written memoranda from organisations and individuals already busy with their submissions to the Government, and already planning to submit their views according to the Government's deadline, rather than to any deadline that we might set. At our first meeting, we set a deadline for written memoranda of 5 March and asked for all the submissions received by the Government to be copied to us. It was however clear that our deadline was difficult for any organisation to comply with; and many submissions to the Government arrived too late to influence our report. At the time of agreeing this report, we have received 51 memoranda addressed to us and have been copied 248 memoranda received by the Government. The majority of these arrived well into our programme of oral evidence sessions, and 84 memoranda in total arrived after our final oral evidence session. We understand the tightness of the Government's timetable but are dissatisfied in that this has had a restrictive effect upon the work of our committee.

11. Despite the excellent preparatory work done on the proposals in the White Paper for the Agency by the Agriculture Committee, we were operating to some extent in the dark when agreeing whom to call before us as witnesses. The programme for witnesses was unable to take account of the quality of written memoranda, which is normally the case with select committee enquiries. It is clear that if we had had time to assess the written evidence that we and the Government received before calling witnesses the outline of the programme for oral evidence would have been different and the oral evidence sessions held by us would have been more productive. We repeat our concern that if the Government is to agree that parliamentary scrutiny of draft legislation is a good thing it has to treat the House's procedures with the seriousness that they demand.

12. Despite the short period of time we had available to us we held 10 meetings, eight of them oral evidence sessions, and took evidence from a total of 41 witnesses. We asked officials from the Joint Food Safety and Standards Group to attend each oral evidence session and to reply to any questions that we might put to them during evidence. Normal committee practice would have been to follow up queries raised in oral evidence in writing to such officials, but time constraints led us to adopt this alternative procedure. We consider this procedural experiment to have been a success: the presence of officials was very useful and we thank them for assisting us in this manner despite the extra work it no doubt involved. The final evidence session took place nine days before our Chairman's draft report was put before us for consideration. We are unhappy that the timescale we were given did not allow us to explore the draft Bill in the detail we would have liked; nor did we have sufficient time to draw up as comprehensive a report on the issues contained in the Bill as we would have wished.

13. The reasons cited by the Committee for the Modernisation of the House for establishing a more thorough system of pre-legislative scrutiny than had hitherto been the case were varied and not entirely compatible.[16] There was no appropriate precedent for us to follow in deciding how to examine the draft Bill. We did however decide that we were not intended by the House to debate or question the most fundamental principle underlying the legislation—whether there should be a Food Standards Agency at all.

14. At our first meeting, we were also clear that we did not wish to examine the Bill clause by clause in the fashion of some hybrid standing committee. One possibility was that we could have proceeded by accepting entirely the Government's detailed proposals for the Agency and looked at the draft Bill to see whether it would properly give effect to those proposals. This would have made the inquiry largely a technical one, with discussion being primarily of a legal or drafting character, perhaps with evidence taken from food lawyers and Parliamentary Counsel. We decided however at our first meeting that this purely technical examination would be a waste of an opportunity for us to look a little deeper into the proposals for the Agency on behalf of the House. We therefore decided to examine the proposals set out in the draft Bill, obviously concerned if any of the drafting should prove defective, but more concerned to establish whether they would properly reflect the hopes and expectations for the Agency from all the various bodies affected. We saw our role as examining as much what was not in the proposals as what was in them. In doing this, we were well aware of the danger of retracing the steps taken by the Agriculture Committee last year. However, it seems to us appropriate that some of the areas and issues touched upon by the Agriculture Committee should again be scrutinised during the course of our inquiry, given the extra legislative detail now available to the House.

15. We are grateful to those bodies and individuals who gave evidence to us, sometimes at very short notice, and to our specialist advisers, Dr Ian G Jones of the Scottish Centre for Infection and Environmental Health, Professor Tim Lang of Thames Valley University, and Dr Michael Stringer of Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association, for their advice and support throughout the inquiry.

Consultation on the levy

16. At the same time that the Government issued the consultation document containing the draft Bill, it also issued the proposals for the levy scheme intended to part-finance the Agency.[17] The proposals were, as we have seen, in part the cause for the delay in publishing the draft Bill. While it was obviously right that the Government should publish these proposals for the levy at the same time as the draft Bill so that they could properly be considered together, we think it regrettable that the levy proposals should have taken so long to draw up thus creating the need for both the draft Bill and the levy to be considered in such a short time. We agreed that even though we were set up by the House to examine the draft Bill, which only contains a provisional clause expressed in general terms giving the Secretary of State power to impose a levy by regulations, we were responsible to the House—and to the public thereby—for examining at least the principles underlying these separate proposals for the levy. These proposals were subject to much more media attention upon publication than the proposals for the Agency itself, and the majority of submissions received both by the Government and by the Committee have dwelt more on the levy than on any other proposal relating to the Agency and in some cases to the exclusion of any other proposal. We consider that it was right for us to examine the principles underlying the levy and agree that we would not have been doing our duty to the House if we had not done so.

Consultation and documentation

17. While we note that the consultation document containing the draft Bill was very useful, it could clearly have spelled out more specifically the ways in which the draft Bill conformed—or did not conform—to the proposals laid out in more detail in the White Paper, and to the occasional added detail in the Government's Reply to the Agriculture Committee's Report on Food Safety. Consultation has many advantages, but one disadvantage is that it produces a large number of interim documents: in that respect the consultation document could have been more comprehensive than it was in bringing together details set out in various other documents. It was often more difficult than it should have been to assess to what extent the details of the White Paper were being carried forward in the draft Bill: to some extent this is because of the necessarily general nature of the vocabulary of drafting, but it meant that we spent much of our time asking for clarification as to whether the provisions of a particular clause exactly corresponded to the powers and functions set out in the White Paper. Although the introduction to the consultation document makes it clear that the draft Bill is the legislative vehicle for the proposals of the White Paper, it also states that some of the proposals would be brought into effect by regulations. Which proposals were to be effected by which vehicle was not always clear.

Drafting points

18. Both ourselves and the Government received comparatively few memoranda dealing with drafting inconsistencies or difficulties. Most of these were pointing out the lack of clarity in the draft Bill; but some points of a more substantial nature will be touched upon later in this Report. We acknowledge that we would have spent more time looking at drafting and textual points had we had time to do so.

1  Food Standards Agency: an interim proposal by Professor Philip James, 30 April 1997. Back
2  MAFF News Release 224/97, 30 July 1997. Back
3  The Food Standards Agency: a force for change, Cm 3830, January 1998. Back
4  Fourth Report from the Agriculture Committee, Food Safety, HC 331-I, 1997-98. Back
5  Fourth Special Report from the Agriculture Committee, Reply by the Government to the Fourth Report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 1997-98, "Food Safety" (HC 331), HC 889, 1997-98. Back
6  QQ. 1-3. Back
7  HC Deb, 24 November 1998, col 27. Back
8  ibid, col. 18. Back
9  The Food Standards Agency: consultation on draft legislation, Cm 4249, January 1999. Back
10  Fifth Report from the Social Security Committee, Pensions on Divorce, HC 869, 1997-98. Back
11  The Social Security inquiry is cited above; the Trade and Industry Committee undertook an inquiry into and issued its First Report on the draft Limited Liability Partnership Bill, Session 1998-99, HC 59. Back
12  A Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons is examining a draft Financial Services Bill; a special standing committee in the Commons is examining a draft Asylum and Immigration Bill. Back
13  Fourth Report from the Agriculture Committee, Food Safety, HC 331-I, 1997-98, para 9. Back
14  ibid. Back
15  Fourth Report of the Trade and Industry Committee, Session 1998-99, HC 59, para. 4(d). Back
16  First Report from the Modernisation Committee, The Legislative Process, Session 1997-98, HC 190, para. 20. Back
17  The Food Standards Agency-Proposals for a Levy scheme: a consultation paper, January 1999. Back

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