Select Committee on Food Standards First Report



SUMMARY OF CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Pre-legislative scrutiny

1. 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 (paragraph 9).

2. 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 (paragraph 12).

Agency members: "The Commission"

3. We recommend that at second reading the Minister should make explicit the criteria by which members of the Commission are selected and interests are declared (paragraph 21).

4. With the openness and transparency of the Agency being so fundamental to its aim of creating public confidence in itself and thus in its work to ensure standards and safety in the food chain, it is clearly essential that the Government consider whether the transparency set down in the Bill is sufficient; and that the Agency's members recognise the position of public trust that they hold and act accordingly (paragraph 22).

Health promotion, nutrition and labelling

5. We agree that if the Agency is to protect the public's health, it is vital that it has a remit in nutrition and dietary advice. We believe that the Agency should be the body responsible for setting the nutritional and dietary standards to be applied by health departments and health promotion agencies (paragraph 27).

6. We are concerned that the responsibility for an overall, consistent food-related health promotion message is unclear. We also consider that the impact in this area of the establishment of the Agency does not appear to have been as well thought through as it should have been. We recommend that the Government clarifies its intention as to which bodies will be responsible and accountable for each aspect of health promotion. We also recommend that more strategic thinking is done on the impact that the Agency will have on the various bodies which have responsibility for health promotion (paragraph 29).

7. Much work is being done on voluntary codes of practice relating to the labelling of food. The National Food Alliance, the Food and Drink Federation and the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards (LACOTS) are for example taking forward a proposal for such a code with regard to health claims on food. This is clearly something which the current Government should be encouraging—if not instigating—and which must become another priority for the Agency (paragraph 31).

8. We would like the Government to explain what role in food advertising the Agency will have. We recommend that the role should be one of providing expert advice to the Advertising Standards Authority and other relevant bodies (paragraph 32).

Enforcement and monitoring

9. The spokesmen for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) suggested that it might even be helpful for local authority staff to be seconded for short periods on to the staff of the Agency: this clearly seems a good idea. We consider this secondment would benefit both local authority and Agency personnel alike, and recommend the Government give some thought as to how such secondment might operate (paragraph 36).

10.  We recommend that the Agency should have a role in setting standards for training for enforcement staff (paragraph 37).

11.  We recommend that the final decision to invoke the power to remove food safety enforcement from a local authority that has failed to meet the required standards should remain with the Secretary of State having received advice from the Agency (paragraph 39).

12.  It is clear that the indicators used to gauge local authority audit and monitoring activity should not be only mechanistic, procedural ones—the number of inspections, for example: neither should they be entirely related to the outputs, to reported cases of food poisoning, as another example. It is evident that only multi-disciplinary indicators, based on best practice and developed by the Agency in conjunction with local authorities, will be suitable for use by the Agency in monitoring local authority enforcement sufficiently accurately to justify some of the steps that it might have to take if an authority is rightly singled out as repeatedly failing to meet the reasonable standards set (paragraph 41).

The Pesticides Safety Directorate and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate

13.  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 (paragraph 45).

The Meat Hygiene Service

14.  We feel that on balance the best interests of the public would be served by retaining the management of the MHS outside the Agency (paragraph 50).

15.  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 (paragraph 50).

Openness and accountability

16.  The Agency's power of providing advice and information to the general public, as well as public authorities, is set down in Clauses 10 and 11. In oral evidence to us, the Minister for Food Safety agreed that this power might fruitfully be extended to providing advice to the food industry. We recommend that this is made explicit on the face of the Bill (paragraph 51).

17.  We recommend that the Government clearly explain the reasoning behind the powers contained in Clauses 9 and 18 when the Bill proper is introduced to the House (paragraph 53).

18.  We recommend that the Agency be guided by a clear presumption in favour of openness and that the case for non-publication by the Agency on account of commercial confidentiality is one that has to be made strenuously rather than simply accepted. The draft Bill should be amended to reflect this (paragraph 54).

19.  The Committee is not satisfied that the powers in subsection 3 of Clause 11 are necessary and recommend that they be removed (paragraph 55).

20.  The Committee is concerned at the quality of advice given by the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA) and the Committee on the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food (COT) and recommends that the Agency monitor the quality of such advice (paragraph 56).

Directions relating to breach of duty by the Agency: Clause 21

21.  There appears to be a significant difference between the two scenarios the Minister set out to us in relation to circumstances in which he might invoke his power to direct the Agency under Clause 21. It seems to us reasonable that these powers should be invoked in relation to the misuse of public funds. But, given that the Agency has independence in its provision of advice, and given that the Government can disagree with that advice and act independently and contrary to it, it appears perverse that the Government can invoke such draconian powers when the Agency disagrees with its advice and acts accordingly. We ask the Government to clarify further what such a disagreement leading to these powers being invoked would entail and who should act as arbiter in cases where there was obviously a fundamental difference of opinion as to the authoritativeness of any given piece of research responsible for such a disagreement (paragraph 62).

Administrative concordats

22.  It is not sufficient that the Government claim that such documents are innocuous and that there is no need to provide them for public scrutiny while stressing the importance of openness in building the public's confidence with regard to the Agency, who will be a partner in all these concordats. The House and the public at large must know what form they will take, who is to have responsibility for drawing up these concordats, who will have final responsibility as to their content in situations of disagreement over that content, who will oversee their implementation and monitor their effectiveness, and to what extent they will be made public. Concordats will have to be in place from vesting day and therefore will need to be drawn up prior to the setting up of the Agency. Drafts of concordats and their successors must be provided to the House upon introduction of the Bill so as to inform sensible debate on this otherwise obscure matter. Final versions and revisions should be made available for scrutiny by a select committee of the House (paragraph 65).

Reporting

23.  We recommend that as a minimum the Agency's reports should indicate annual progress in food safety and in raising dietary and nutritional standards (paragraph 66).

24.  Our preference would be for parliamentary scrutiny of the Agency to be undertaken by a sub-committee of an enlarged Health Committee, possibly one having a wider public health remit (paragraph 66).

The culture of openness

25.  Much comment has been made about the new culture that the Agency is intended to bring to the food safety and standards situation in this country. As we have seen above this new culture will to a great extent depend upon the people who direct the operation of the Agency, and upon those who work for it. However just as great an influence upon the Agency's culture will be its openness and the transparency of the procedures of its executive. This openness is not just a component of its independence from those Government departments who used to carry out much of its work, but also serves to stress and make explicit that independence to the public at large. It will be essential that the Agency in all its activities espouses the principle of openness in its activities (paragraph 67).

Funding and the levy

26.  We recommend that the Bill should empower the Secretary of State to extend the levy scheme by regulations to encompass a licensing scheme if so advised by the Agency (paragraph 72).

27.  We do not agree that the levy will enable industry to bring pressure to bear on the Agency, because payment of the levy will not be voluntary, but this point must clearly be put across to the public by the Government, and by the Agency when set up, lest the impression prevail that the independence of the Agency is compromised by the source of its funding (paragraph 74).

28.  The Government must make clearly known the mechanisms by which any future changes to the levy will be decided upon and made (paragraph 75).

29.  Local authorities who favour the levy in the context of licensing of premises view the imposition of a levy outside such a context as a possible deterrent on premises seeking to be registered, thus allowing those premises to escape local enforcement vis à vis food health and food standards regulations altogether. However, these cited reservations aside, the chosen point of the levy—at least in the short term—appears to us to be based on practical reasoning (paragraph 76).

30.  We believe that the flat rate principle is contrary to natural justice and we recommend that the Government implement a graduated system following its consultation exercise (paragraph 77).

31.  Given the Government's express intention to raise some funding for the Agency from parts of the industry, we consider a levy to be one means of doing so. However we think that in the short-term only the set-up costs of the Agency should be funded by the levy. Recurring new costs should initially be funded from general taxation until the Agency has had proper opportunity to assess its running costs and consider any possible extension of the levy (paragraph 80).

32.  We are of the opinion that if the amount of money to be raised by the levy is indeed to increase over time, then the Government must—in the interests of equity—re-examine the way in which it is to be raised. At the current proposed level, the levy would not be much of a burden to all except the most marginal retailers: if it were to increase then many retailers would feel very considerable financial pressure. A flat rate of payment would not be suitable in such a situation (paragraph 82).

The European and International Dimension

33.  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 (paragraph 87).

34.  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 (paragraph 88).

35.  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 (paragraph 88).

Research

36.  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 (paragraph 91).

37.  Professional scientists and academics consider a research budget of £23 million to be 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 (paragraph 92).

Co-ordination of research

38.  The Government proposed in the White Paper to look into this matter and to come up with concrete proposals. 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 (paragraph 93).


 
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