Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1 -
WEDNESDAY 24 FEBRUARY 1999
and THE RT
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.
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 restrictedwe
understand the reasons for thatit 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 Reformobviously that is the caveatwe
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
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.
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 inquirylet me be clear that I have some
interest in that inquiryit does not seem to make sense,
(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.
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 nutritionothers
saw the Agency as having no role in nutritionwe 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.
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
(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
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
(Tessa Jowell) It will be for the
18. You have contradicted yourself in two
(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.
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.