Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


42. Under the existing arrangements, four Executive Agencies of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have separate responsibilities for administering policy on the registration and approval of pesticides; the registration and approval of veterinary medicines; the enforcement of meat hygiene; and the enforcement of dairy hygiene. These Executive Agencies are, respectively, the Pesticides Safety Directorate (advice to Ministers on the approval of new products is made by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, (ACP)); the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (the Veterinary Products Committee (VPC) advises Ministers on the safety, quality and efficacy of new veterinary medicinal products); the Meat Hygiene Service; and the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency. The draft Bill sets out a number of proposals which modify these arrangements, as follows.

The Pesticides Safety Directorate and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate

43. In essence, the draft Bill proposes that both the PSD and the VMD remain MAFF Executive Agencies, whilst granting certain powers to the Food Standards Agency to intervene in the registration and approvals process applying to pesticides and veterinary medicines. Under Schedule 2, paragraph 8(2), the Agency has the right to nominate a representative to the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. Ms Jill Wordley from the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group assured us that this power would give the Agency "an effective veto" over the pesticides approval process should such action be deemed necessary, as any decision taken by the ACP has to be made on an unanimity rather than a majority basis.[75] The Agency is similarly empowered under Schedule 2, paragraph 9(6) to appoint a nominee to the Veterinary Products Committee.

44. It is also expected that the Agency will exercise its right under paragraph 9 of Part II of Schedule 2 to the draft Bill to appoint advisers on food safety issues to both the ACP and the VPC.[76] Furthermore, the PSD will be required to consult with the Agency on pesticides registration; the approval and suspension of pesticides products; and on the criteria under which the approvals process proceeds.[77] The draft Bill places an analogous responsibility on MAFF to consult with the Agency on matters relating to the regulation of veterinary products, and for the Ministry to make available to the Agency all relevant information pertaining to veterinary medicines.[78] Under Clause 10, the Agency can also place any advice made to the Government on pesticides and veterinary medicines in the public domain if it deems it necessary.

45. Generally, we are satisfied with the draft Bill's provisions relating to the PSD and the VMD. While the Ministry retains overall responsibility for the regulation of pesticides and veterinary products and for the enforcement of legislation concerning their use, there are clear organisational divisions in these responsibilities consequent on the VMD and the PSD having the status of Executive Agencies. We are not completely satisfied that the draft Bill provides the Agency with sufficient scope to intervene in the pesticides and veterinary medicines regulatory process. The PSD and VMD should be required to submit a food safety impact study to the Agency for approval as part of the regulatory process. We remain concerned that the Agency has no direct role in monitoring the impact of pesticides and veterinary medicines after their introduction.

The Meat Hygiene Service and the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency

46. Part I of Schedule 2 and paragraph 5 of Schedule 3 to the draft Bill allow for the transfer of statutory responsibility for meat and dairy hygiene, currently exercised by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under the Food Safety Act 1990, to the Agency, and grant the Agency powers as an enforcement body under Section 6 of this Act. As there appears to be no provision in the existing text for modifying or extending MAFF's statutory responsibilities in this area, the Agency will in effect assume responsibility for the Ministry's Executive Agency discharging enforcement duties, the Meat Hygiene Service. However, based on the contents of the draft Bill, it is unclear to us precisely what the Government's intentions are regarding the MHS. Responding to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister for Food Safety suggested that the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency, which currently has responsibility for enforcing dairy hygiene regulations, will retain this duty, but henceforth will be answerable to the Food Standards Agency in this particular area rather than to MAFF.[79] The Farming and Rural Conservation Agency discharges a range of other agricultural duties, and in all other respects it would appear that the FRCA will remain a MAFF Executive Agency.

47. We have a number of reservations on the proposed arrangements for the MHS, as set out in the draft Bill. First, we are concerned that the Agency will hold responsibility for both regulatory and enforcement functions in the sphere of meat hygiene, at a time when significant administrative reorganisation is being undertaken which permits these duties to be separated. Secondly, we consider that there is the possibility that the public perception of the Agency as an impartial meat hygiene standards regulator will be compromised, as under the draft Bill's provisions it is likely that the MHS will be incorporated into the Agency, becoming its single most important component. This, we foresee, will be particularly significant when the first food pathogen outbreak emerges which is directly linked to a lapse in meat hygiene standards. Thirdly we are unsatisfied with the draft Bill's failure to identify clear and independent monitoring and auditing systems for the Agency's own activities in this regard We examine these issues in the following paragraphs.

48. The transfer of responsibility for the MHS from MAFF to the Agency raises once again the question of whether a single organisational structure should exercise responsibility for policy regulation and policy enforcement. While this question has some similarities to that posed by MAFF's retaining overall responsibility for the VMD and the PSD, the draft Bill does not specify the precise organisational status which the MHS will have in relation to the Agency. We would prefer much greater clarity in the final Bill on the organisational relationship between the Agency and the MHS. For example, will the MHS enjoy status similar to that of a Departmental Executive Agency, or will it be incorporated within the Agency, as the draft Bill seems to suggest? We are concerned that the MHS's incorporation into the Agency could undermine its public image as an independent and impartial arbiter of meat hygiene standards, particularly when the size of the MHS relative to the rest of the Agency is taken into account. At present, the Meat Hygiene Service employs some 1,700 staff, chiefly meat inspectors, and has an annual budget of £53 million.[80] In comparison, it is unlikely that the Agency will have more than around 450 staff in total.[81]

49. On the grounds of public accountability and in the interests of transparency of policy making, our view is that, ideally, organisations should not be placed in the invidious position of having dual responsibility for formulating policy and enforcing it. Mr Keith Cull of LACOTS (Local Authority Co-ordinating body on Food and Trading Standards) concurred with our opinion in commenting to us that "personally I have always thought that one model for an agency is to be the standard setter and monitor...with all its powers in the Bill to take action where [enforcement bodies do] not deliver is the right sort of relationship to have".[82] Our opinion is that the creation of a new Agency provides a perfect opportunity to disentangle regulatory and enforcement responsibilities, thereby establishing a greater degree of public accountability in policy making than has hitherto been possible. If responsibility for the formulation and enforcement of meat hygiene is not clearly defined and separated within the Agency, our fear is that a serious food pathogen outbreak arising from meat would not only tarnish the MHS's reputation, but might also have serious repercussions for the Agency.

Monitoring and enforcement of the FSA's own activities

50. In assessing the likely problems which might confront the Agency if the MHS is incorporated into it, we paid particular attention in our deliberations to the surveillance procedures which the Agency would have at its disposal for monitoring its own activities, including those carried out by the MHS. Ms Jill Wordley of the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group told us that powers provided under Clause 14, subsection (5), would require the Agency to be fully accountable for its own actions, chiefly through their declaration as part of its Annual Report to Parliament.[83] However, the wording of this clause makes no mention of the mechanisms which will be used to monitor the Agency's own activities. Furthermore, in our opinion this clause should reflect the need for monitoring to be executed in a genuinely objective and impartial manner, and should specify which body will have responsibility for this duty. Our view is that such activities should be discharged by an independent audit body. Only then will the public be reassured that the Agency's monitoring and auditing systems aim to drive up meat hygiene standards across the industry, rather than colluding in maintaining existing standards. We feel that on balance the best interests of the public would be served by retaining the management of the MHS outside the Agency. If the Government does not accept this recommendation, then the onus is on the Government to establish a structure which clearly separates these powers within the Agency. The Agency should also be subjected to independent review two years after its establishment, with the aim of assessing the practicality of working arrangements between the Agency and the MHS, the effectiveness of the Agency in raising meat hygiene standards, and the objectivity with which these standards are enforced by the MHS.

75  Q.488. Back
76  See Explanatory notes, Part II, para 8, subpara 2. Back
77  Part II, para 9, subpara 5. Back
78  Part II, para 8; Clause 27, subsections (1) and (3). Back
79  HC Deb, 8 February 1999, c.101. Back
80  HC Deb. 24 February 1999, c.334. Back
81  Q.759. Back
82  Q.916. Back
83  Q.838. Back

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