Select Committee on Food Standards First Report



VII MISCELLANEOUS

The European and International Dimension

84. The Agency will have to develop appropriate links with central government, devolved authorities and local authorities in order to carry out its activities effectively. It must not however be thought that the Agency has no wider remit, or no requirement to operate farther afield than the United Kingdom, nor that it need not look outside the United Kingdom for advice and assistance in some areas. Many of our witnesses—the Government included—stressed to us the extent to which food safety is not just a national, but an European and international matter. Labelling legislation, for example, is still governed by an EU Directive that many consider to be very outdated.[135] The activities carried out by the MHS, which as we have seen is to come under the aegis of the Agency, are set out by the EU. The WTO is beginning to take a similar lead in international food matters. The drawing up of the Codex Alimentarius adds another level to this extra national dimension to food safety and standards.[136] If the work of the Agency is to be fully effective then the Government must ensure that in negotiations with the WTO on food issues it stresses that food safety and standards should be paramount.

85. The European and international dimension is touched upon directly in the Bill only once. Clause 20 of the draft Bill gives the Secretary of State power to direct the Agency with regard to European and international treaty obligations. This power is also to be exercised as appropriate by the devolved authorities. The Agency is to be consulted, and the direction shall be published at the directing authority considers appropriate. The notes on this Clause stress that these are reserve powers in the—presumably—unlikely case that the Agency has not already taken steps to fulfill the UK's obligations in this regard.[137]

86. The White Paper contains a number of important references to EU obligations in particular,[138] and the explanatory notes to the draft Bill also add a little more information to the picture. With reference to the functions of the Agency under Clause 9, the explanatory notes point out that the Agency "will...represent the UK at working level in relevant EU and international fora".[139] With reference to Clause 15 of the Bill, covering the Agency's specific powers in its monitoring of enforcement action, the explanatory notes to subsection (6) refer to an authorised person when entering premises to be accompanied by another person, that person, for example, possibly being "an official of the European Commission".[140]

87. It is only to be expected that the draft Bill should provide for the Agency's obligatory remit with regard to EU and international obligations—that this should be so is made abundantly clear in the White Paper. There are however a few areas in which the Government may wish to expand upon the Agency's international context. Many countries—both within and without the EU—have established agencies similar to that proposed for the UK. It will be of enormous benefit to the Agency—and hopefully also to its international counterparts —to establish some formal or informal contacts, to learn from each other administratively, but also perhaps to pool research and information on matters relating to food safety and standards. It is obvious that government in considering the form of the Agency, has had some regard to other models for food safety or standards agencies, but it is less clear that local authorities, for example, share this knowledge of potentially instructive international comparisons. It would be enormously beneficial if the Agency could take a lead in establishing links not just between it and fellow agencies but between representatives of local government enforcement bodies in the UK and similar enforcement bodies abroad. Such contacts could be seen as clearly advantageous in the context of the globalisation of food safety and standards issues. It might not be appropriate for such a matter to feature upon the face of a Bill, but it should certainly be a matter that is made a priority for the Agency upon its establishment, and that should feature in its annual report and statement of general objectives and practices.

88. There is also one particular matter, first raised by the National Food Alliance in oral evidence before us, but also pointed out to us in some written submissions, that was not afterwards cleared up in oral evidence with ministers to our satisfaction.[141] It is clearly beneficial that the Agency should have its officials representing the Government in European or appropriate international discussions: indeed MAFF's competency with regard to participation in such discussions will disappear on vesting day. However, the Agency's independence, as provided for in this draft Bill, will allow it to issue advice to the public that is perhaps not accepted by the Government in the formulation of certain of its policies. Those policies, contrary to Agency advice, will sometimes form the subject of discussions in Europe or at the WTO, and at which Agency officials will have to push the Government line rather than the Agency's line. This appears— at least superficially—to compromise the independence of the Agency in this one important regard, and it also allows for the possibility of the Government's policy being compromised by independent officials who consider that policy to be unsound. It is important that the Government clarify how such Agency activity will operate when there is a clear and public difference of opinion between the Agency and the Government on a matter which the Agency is having to pursue on behalf of the Government in European or international fora.

Research

The role of the Agency: research in the draft Bill

89. The role of the Agency as foremost provider of advice and information to both Government and the public is key to the success of the Agency in establishing confidence in itself and in the food chain. The transparency of this role—as already discussed—is vital. However the content of the advice and information provided by the Agency must also be of the very highest standard for such confidence to be maintained. The Agency has an obligation to ensure that it receives information concerning developments in the area of food safety and standards, and that it keeps itself abreast of the state of the science in this area. This duty is set out in Clause 12 of the draft Bill. Much of this advice and information will of course come from its own advisory committees and from those committees outside its structure but which report to it. Clause 12 also allows the Agency to "seek advice from other scientific experts as necessary".[142]

90. This same Clause provides for the Agency to develop its own scientific understanding—outwith its advisory committees—by undertaking or commissioning its own research. As part of this activity, indeed as part of its carrying out of its general functions, the draft Bill proposes to empower the Agency to carry out "observations" by "undertaking surveillance programmes....at any point in the food production and supply chain, and anywhere else there might be implications for food safety and related matters".[143] This power will of course be of great assistance in permitting the Agency to carry out a very wide and important range of activity to fuel its research programme.

The size of the Agency's research budget

91. Taken together, Clauses 12 and 13 go a long way to giving the Agency a strong hand in ensuring its position at the forefront of research into food safety and standards, and thus likewise ensuring its position as the premier source of advice and information on these matters, such advice and information only properly being built on good research. However a number of concerns have been raised over a few areas connected with research matters. Most concern centres on the size of the Agency's own research budget, and its capacity either to carry out its own research or to sponsor research carries out by other bodies or individuals. The White Paper gives a figure of £25 million as the likely annual budget for Agency research on vesting day.[144] This figure represents the total cost of research projects currently undertaken by MAFF (£19 million[145]) or to a much lesser extent by DoH (£6 million[146]) which have been identified as those that would be transferred to the Agency on its vesting day. The Minister for Food Safety in oral evidence to us acknowledged that if anything that figure has now fallen to closer to £23 million due to research cuts in MAFF.[147]

92. Professional scientists and academics consider this size of research budget insufficient for a national agency that is intended to have national and international scientific authority sufficient for it to hold people's confidence and to influence debate. Moreover, with regard to much of this budget, in the short term the Agency's hands will be tied. As the Minister explained in oral evidence to us, most of the research to be transferred is tied to three year contracts—some of the contracts will end shortly after vesting but much of it will not finish until two or three years into the Agency's life.[148] The ability of the Agency to commission research even up to the low limit of £23 million will be inhibited until three years after vesting day, and in the years before that the amount of research that the Agency will be able to commission will be derisory indeed. Given the importance of the Agency's research capability to its independence and influence, this is clearly unsatisfactory. We are concerned that in the long term the Agency will no doubt seek to use funds from the levy to augment its research programmes, and indeed will seek to increase the levy for that very purpose; in the short term however it is clear that the Agency's capacity to fund research is not commensurate with its important role, and additional money is likely to be needed.

Co-ordination of research

93. There is of course also an enormous amount of research being carried out into matters related to food standards and safety at universities, research institutes and other public bodies. Indeed much of this research is resourced from private funds, and the food industry carries out in addition a lot of its own research. There has always been an inordinate amount of overlap in this research, and at the same time some major areas for potential research have gone neglected. In its White Paper on the proposed Agency, the Government recognised that the Agency would need to attempt co-ordination of all these various fields and sponsors of research, perhaps by means of R & D Consultative Committees.[149] The Government proposed in the White Paper to look into this matter of co-ordination and to come up with concrete proposals.[150] Given the extent of the concern over the size of the Agency's own budget, and its need to take advantage of properly co-ordinated research, it is important that the Government expand upon these proposals as soon it can. There might also be a case for putting into the Bill, perhaps as a third element in subsection (2), a duty on the Agency to assist co-ordination in these areas of research.


135  See para. 26. Back
136  Q.247, Q.341, QQ.672-9. Back
137  The Food Standards Agency: consultation on draft legislation, Cm 4249, January 1999-note on Clause 20. Back
138  The Food Standards Agency: a force for change, Cm 3830, January 1998-paras 3.10-19. Back
139  The Food Standards Agency: consultation on draft legislation, Cm 4249, January 1999-note on Clause 9. Back
140  ibid-note on Clause 15. Back
141  Q.247 and QQ.672-5, respectively. Back
142  The Food Standards Agency: consultation on draft legislation, Cm 4249, January 1999-note on Clause 12. Back
143  ibid-note on Clause 13. Back
144  The Food Standards Agency: a force for change, Cm 3830, January 1998-para 3.32. Back
145  Q.638. Back
146  ibidBack
147  Q.640. Back
148  Q.646. Back
149  The Food Standards Agency: a force for change, Cm 3830, January 1998-para 3.30. Back
150  ibidBack

 
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