Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1 - 19)




  Can I first of all welcome the Ministers here this morning? I am sure you are aware, as well as we are, this is the first time an ad hoc select committee has sat in this House taking evidence. We have been given the responsibility of looking at the draft legislation and reporting back to the House by the end of March. There was a great temptation, being legislators in this place, for us to sit down and go through it line by line, but we decided not to do that. We thought what we ought to do was to bring both of yourselves in who have had certainly current responsibility in areas that this will cover and also future responsibilities as well. We thought it would be a very useful start for this Committee to look at this legislation by inviting you both here this morning. Thank you very much for attending. I think, Robert, you would like to say something briefly and then start questioning.

Mr Walter

  1.  Indeed. I just want to say that my interests are in the Register of Members' Interests and also minuted by this Committee but my farming interests may be relevant to clauses 25 to 28 of the Bill. I have no interest in food processing or food retailing. I do not mind which Minister kicks off with the answer to this question. Could I perhaps ask you why you have chosen this particular procedural route of prelegislative scrutiny for this Bill?
  (Mr Rooker)  It was always our intention, partly with the modernisation of the House that the government has been conducting, obviously in cooperation with the will of the House, to carry through legislation in a different way that produced better quality legislation at the end of the period. It is not always possible to do that with every Bill but it was thought, just over a year ago at least, that there were going to be contentious areas in it but they were not overtly party politically contentious areas and it is something we have to get right from day one. It would be a suitable vehicle because the publication of the draft Bill is the third stage of the process. It would be useful to present to Parliament a draft Bill that has not got every dot and comma complete, as you have just heard from the presentation by officials. Obviously, it was our intention to do this earlier, last summer and autumn. Events prevented that, mainly because we had more difficulty producing the consultation paper for the charging element. We thought it would be useful for the House and the wider public to have a prelegislative look at a proper Bill, rather than a White Paper, in the expectation that when the House gets the full Bill there would be no attempt to rush it but we would have had more scrutiny by ministers of ministers and the intentions of the government than would have been possible under the normal route. This was quite a deliberate policy on our part. While the present timetable is very restricted—we understand the reasons for that—it is dependent because of the House of Lords and getting the slot after Easter. It is our intention to legislate this session if at all possible during the summer months.

  2.  The Committee is very concerned about the timescale. This Bill was not announced in the Queen's Speech. It was then published in draft not long after the Queen's Speech. I do not know why it was not in the Queen's Speech. We are expected to go through all this prelegislative scrutiny in basically a month. Do you not think that is rather tight?
  (Mr Rooker)  No. I think you are coming from the wrong starting point. First of all, the James Report was published on 7 May 1997. We consulted for several months on that. The reference to the draft Bill was in the Queen's Speech of the year before, that we would produce the draft legislation. We produced the White Paper in January 1998 which we consulted on again very widely with over 1,000 submissions. We produced the draft Bill and a draft note on a charging proposal which again we are consulting on. The contents of this Bill could more accurately be described as a transfer of powers from the MAFF Bill rather than something brand new. The new area of functions that this legislation creates, that you have seen this morning, essentially is only in three areas: on farm surveillance, the education and information process of giving advice and the setting of standards and the monitoring and enforcement of local authorities. A lot of the powers are not new. It is not as though this has just been thrown on the world or the House without any previous documentation in the past. Given the fact that we are intent on legislating as soon as possible, the Prime Minister referred in his speech on the Queen's Speech to the Food Standards Agency. The fact that it was not referred to in the actual speech delivered by Her Majesty, with respect, is not the issue. The Prime Minister referred to it in his speech later that day in the House.

  3.  But we are going through this scrutiny procedure whereby there is a public consultation period at the same time as we are going through our scrutiny procedure. We do not know, at the time of our scrutiny, what the result of that public consultation is going to be. Do you not think, with a slightly longer timescale, the work of this Committee might have been more relevant to the Bill, rather than running the two in parallel?
  (Mr Rooker)  No. With respect, we are in that position as well. We do not know. Any extension of the timetable of consultation puts at risk the delivering of a Bill for the House to consider during the summer months of May, June and July and obviously, with the spill-over, maybe in the other place. Subject to progress on the House of Lords Reform—obviously that is the caveat—we intend to legislate. It is not as though this has popped up out of nowhere without any advance warning, without any prior publication of our intentions because the Bill itself follows the White Paper. Philip James himself said it was surprising to people how closely the White Paper followed his own report. There are only about three areas where there is a deviation and I am happy to discuss those.

  4.  You are suggesting that we are going to get a Bill fairly soon after the end of the consultation period. I just throw one extra item in here. Lord Justice Phillips is due to report on the BSE inquiry on 30 June.
  (Mr Rooker)  No, he is not. It is later.

  5.  Could that possibly not have an effect on this legislation?
  (Mr Rooker)  The BSE inquiry has asked for an extension of time. I am unaware at the moment of what timescale is being discussed. Clearly, subject to what they report, as I have indicated this parliamentary session will not end anyway until October/November. That is the normal process. We would want to take account of anything they say, quite clearly. Nevertheless, that is a very specific inquiry on a very specific period of time in this country relating to one area of food policy. It is very important. I accept that. It does not undermine the main thrust of the very reason for setting up the Food Standards Agency which is to dislocate food standards and safety out of the ministry that sponsors food and farming. That is the prime objective of setting up the Agency.

Mr Curry

  6.  I thought, with respect, that the BSE inquiry was supposed to find lessons about how to handle food safety issues. You are setting up an agency to handle food standards and safety issues. What you are now proposing, to use your expression, is a real dislocation because if you then legislate before the outcome of the BSE inquiry—let me be clear that I have some interest in that inquiry—it does not seem to make sense, does it?
  (Mr Rooker)  I do not accept that. I am not in a position to comment in any way on the inquiry. No minister in the present government sees any papers at all. We only find out in the newspapers what everybody else puts to the inquiry. We are absolutely limited in that respect, but we clearly understand why the inquiry was set up. We do need to learn lessons. I suspect some of the lessons that we drew, even in opposition, the very reason it was a manifesto commitment to set up a food agency independent of MAFF, was a lesson that we had drawn even before we came into government. I do not see a contradiction. Lessons, advice and recommendations that come from the BSE inquiry will, I suspect, cover far more than one government department and certainly they would be taken on board by the Agency. I cannot think at the moment of anything that would require primary legislation. Obviously, there is an opportunity for secondary legislation there. The fact that we are covering animal feedstuffs and setting up the new Advisory Committee on Animal Feedstuffs could be held to prejudge the BSE inquiry. We consider it is important to go ahead with that in advance of the outcome of the BSE inquiry.

Dr Moonie

  7.  I have a few questions for the Public Health Minister. The first two certainly have been telegraphed through my remarks to officials earlier on.
  (Tessa Jowell)  I was listening closely.

  8.  Given the general balance that we take in public health towards merits of health promotion and prevention, why does the Agency seem to concentrate on prevention rather than on health promotion when we have an opportunity to do both?
  (Tessa Jowell)  Because the Agency is not the only responsible body for protecting the public health and improving the public health. It is a major function of the Department of Health which has the overriding responsibility for safeguarding and promoting health. This was actually a matter to which we gave a lot of thought in the course of drafting the relevant clauses of the draft Bill. It is my judgment that the Agency stands the greatest chance of being effective if its purpose is highly focused, in the first instance, on food safety and on protecting the public health, rather than taking on board a broader set of functions which frankly are functions which belong properly with the Department of Health for the promotion of public health.

  9.  What would be your benchmark for the Food Standards Agency? What would you look for it to produce in the way of output and as to whether you could say, "Yes, this has been a success"?
  (Tessa Jowell)  Clearly this is a very important task that will face the Agency once it is established. One of the major purposes in setting up the Agency has been to re-establish public confidence in the safety of food. The importance of the Agency being seen by the public to be independent and to make progress in re-establishing public confidence will be, I think, an important benchmark against which we can judge its success. We will also want to look at the effective handling of particular incidents that arise in the course of the Agency's work: the better handling of outbreaks through the much closer and more rigorous surveillance of the performance of local authorities in particular. What I would counsel against is taking a simple view of the incidence of food-borne illness as an indicator of the Agency's success alone, but I give you two illustrative benchmarks for success. Clearly, that will be a job that will be one of the first steps that the Agency will have to take once it is established.

  10.  Do you not think it might be reasonable for the public to expect that having a Food Standards Agency would reduce the incidence of cases of food poisoning?
  (Tessa Jowell)  I certainly hope that it will but the task of reducing the incidence of food-borne illness is frankly again a task which extends beyond the reach of the Agency. As you are more aware than almost anybody else, I suspect, the business of notification of food poisoning incidents is haphazard in many cases. We will never get comprehensive reporting of every incident through a combination of reasons. Many people get an attack of food poisoning. They have a fair guess as to what the cause of it was. They never go to the doctor, so nobody ever knows if the incident never gets documented. That said, I do believe that it is important that we take further steps to improve the statutory notification of food-borne illness. We are, as the officials made clear in the earlier presentation, looking at ways of doing that.

  11.  There has been criticism voiced on the fact that the Agency seems to be very weak on nutritional issues. Was this by design?
  (Tessa Jowell)  I certainly do not think that the Agency will be weak on the areas of nutrition in which, in our judgment, it is right that it has a role. It is very important that we distinguish the Agency's role in this. It is not the Agency's job to tell people what to eat. It is the Agency's job through a whole range of steps that it will be able to take to improve the safety of food but also to improve public understanding about the nutritional content of food. After very long and extensive discussion and consultation with agencies, organisations with an interest in nutrition, some of whom as you rightly say wanted the Agency to have the complete responsibility for nutrition—others saw the Agency as having no role in nutrition—we have come up with what we believe to be an honourable and practical distribution of responsibility with an area of shared responsibility particularly in servicing one of the key advisory committees, the committee on the medical aspects of nutrition, being shared between the Agency and the Department of Health. Again, I think it is important here to remember that the Department of Health has a major responsibility, as part of its broader functions in relation to public health, to conduct the epidemiological surveillance of nutritional status, the link between nutritional status and different major diseases. We know that nutrition has a part to play in the incidence of cancer and in the incidence of coronary heart disease. These are Department of Health functions, not Agency functions, which is why we sought in the interests of practicability and effectiveness to limit and focus the Agency's responsibility in relation to nutrition to labelling as part of the broader issues in relation to food safety.

Dr Brand

  12.  You quite correctly said that what we eat has a direct effect on our health quite often. If the Food Standards Agency has the responsibility for the manufacturing of food products, clearly they must have a responsibility in making sure that people have access to a sensible diet and that they have access to sensible advice on their diet. In what you told us just now, on the second question, you tried to give a response saying, "Yes, of course the Agency would have a responsibility", but in the first question from my colleague you said that, no, you are not into promotion of health, just protection. Who will take responsibility to make sure that people actually know what junk food does to them; that they know the effects of having an unbalanced diet?
  (Tessa Jowell)  The Agency will have that responsibility for giving information about the components of a balanced diet in order that people can understand the link between good health and eating a diet which has a proper balance of nutrients.

  13.  Will the Agency be an agent for the Health Education Authority or the other way around?
  (Tessa Jowell)  The Agency in this respect will be independent. It will provide this information based on the best evidence available about which, I have to say, there is not major dispute.

  14.  Then we may get these wonderful pronouncements on red meat giving you cancer one day but not three weeks later from different departments.
  (Tessa Jowell)  No; I think that is misleading.

  15.  It was extremely misleading to the population.
  (Tessa Jowell)  It was confusing for people to read two different reports about the Committee's recommendations. You are quite right. The important job for the Agency will be to ensure that its advice is consistent and——

  16.  Who has the lead responsibility to make sure that the advice that comes out is consistent? Which body is going to be accountable if that advice is not found to be consistent?
  (Tessa Jowell)  The information for the public about a balanced diet will be information that will be provided by the Agency and we have agreed that in the distribution of responsibility. Clearly, the Department of Health also has a broader, population based responsibility for making sure that, for instance, it works with the Department of Education and Employment on the development of nutritional standards for school meals, that nutritious meals are served to patients in hospitals and so forth. In terms of providing information to the public about what is a balanced diet, that responsibility will reside with the Agency.

  17.  The Agency is going to be a health promotion agency?
  (Tessa Jowell)  It will be for the——

  18.  You have contradicted yourself in two answers.
  (Tessa Jowell)  I am not contradicting myself. This is a very important point and there is no contradiction here. The Agency will give the information. What people choose to do with the information is a matter for them.

Mr Curry

  19.  I am getting more confused by the minute on this. Let me ask two questions. First, this thing is going to be set up. At nine o'clock on Monday morning, somebody is going to arrive in the office. What does the person doing nutrition do at nine o'clock on Monday morning when they arrive at the office? Do they, for example, issue anti-cancer diets? You mentioned that there is a link between food and cancer. Will the Agency say, "If you do not want to catch cancer, eat this or do not eat that"? Is it going to give you an analysis of the properties of Irn Bru, for example, which I understand is a beverage which is widely consumed in Scotland, which may be part of the devolved responsibilities. Perhaps that is why you have to have an expert from Scotland on the Agency. What happens at nine o'clock on a Monday morning? Are you actually going to start issuing Standards Agency seal of approval diets to protect you against this, that and the other?
  (Tessa Jowell)  That would be extremely unwise. the information that the Agency will provide will be general information about the nature of a balanced diet, the balance between carbohydrate, protein, starch, fat and so forth. That will be the kind of information that will be provided by the Agency, in a way that the public will be able to understand. That function of communicating information about nutrition will be an important part of its role. If I can draw a distinction, in terms, for instance, of the further exploration of the link between diet and cancer which might have a bearing on clinical advice, the sort of advice that primary care professionals will be giving to patients, that would be a responsibility for the Department of Health but broadly based information about the balance of diet for the general public is information which will be provided by the Food Standards Agency.

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