Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 60 - 79)



  60.  Should you not have been a little bit more radical and tie these things more firmly together?
  (Mr Rooker)  You do not think this is very radical?

  61.  No. You are going to keep a host of existing advisory bodies on this, that and the other which quite often report to more than one authority and the danger always is that if you have advisory bodies that report to other authorities they can be ignored by both.
  (Mr Rooker)  The Food Standards Agency will have the power to abolish, merge, set up new advisory bodies. We will hand over the existing structure to the Food Agency. The Food Agency then will conduct its own affairs and if it thinks——

  62.  It can set up new agencies.
  (Mr Rooker)  It can abolish the existing advisory committees.

  63.  Statutory agencies which you have illustrated to us this morning will continue with those statutory duties and presumably will need legislation to change their role. For instance, if the Meat Hygiene Inspection Service in time will sit more comfortably with another Department you would have to go for primary legislation to do that.
  (Mr Rooker)  We would but the example you choose is probably not a good one to illustrate what I think is an important question. The Meat Hygiene Service is only four years old and therefore it is still by definition in early days. I think the decision taken was the right one. We have no intention of splitting it up. We are going to keep it as a unified agency and it fits well within the Food Standards Agency. As far as the other matters you referred to, some of those voluntary non statutory advisory committees, those that are exclusive for the Food Agency, the Food Agency may decide to disband, merge or create new ones, it will be up to the Agency, not for the Government to tell the Agency what to do. To that extent, it could start if it wishes with a clean sheet of paper.

  64.  Can I ask what parameters the Agency will work to and who will set them? Will it work from the precautionary principle, which is the ultra protective approach or will it bring in issues like the economic viability of the industry, practicalities, tradition, and who makes that decision? Is that a ministerial decision or is that the Agency being allowed to decide?
  (Mr Rooker)  Tessa may want to come in on the aspects of the precautionary side of it. It is in no way the role of this Agency to snuff out innovation in the food industry. It is no way to attack small producers with niche specialist markets or to in a way be an albatross around the neck.

  65.  It will have the power to stop people doing any or all of those things if it goes from a precautionary principle, until you have developed exactly 100 per cent safety record you cannot produce, no-one can give you that assurance. Even your assurance on beef on the bone I did not accept. It only needs a microscopic bit of infected material and lumping the bone off the piece of beef will not make any difference. That is a different issue.
  (Mr Rooker)  We cannot guarantee 100 per cent.

  66.  No.
  (Mr Rooker)  Nobody is saying it will do. There is a set of guiding principles which have been converted into, I agree, legalise in the legislation but they are all set out where each one is and therefore it will not be able to have its own agenda. The agenda is constrained by what this House agrees in this legislation. Those are the parameters within which the Agency will work.

  67.  I think the mechanism is defined in the Bill not the agenda.
  (Mr Rooker)  The actual agenda and setting of priorities will be the function of the chair, the board or commission in conjunction with the chief executive. They will be the right people to do that. That is why we want them to do it. People argue the case we need this industry, we need this agency because ministers are not up to doing that. The public do not believe that ministers do it. We need an arms' length arrangement and that is what we are proposing.

Mr Paterson:  Despite your self-confessed inadequacies, last year——

Dr Brand:  I want to dissociate myself from that remark, it was totally unnecessary.

Mr Paterson

  68.  The Minister said he did not have the power to perceive. The fact was last year we saw the biggest drop in salmonella cases since 1987 and that was also despite the dramatic increase in egg consumption thanks to the efforts of Delia Smith. Why was that and would this Agency have had any impact on this?
  (Mr Rooker)  On salmonella, the industry has done an enormous amount of work in respect of salmonella. It is nothing like the scale that it was ten years ago. I cannot prejudge what the Agency would have done in the last ten years, it is just not possible to do that. What I do know is that the poultry industry has taken a lot of action. The retailers have insisted a lot of action has been taken. More difficult though on campylobacter so nobody is selling salmonella free and campylobacter free poultry which is why the advice remains to cook it before you eat it because that does eradicate the problem. The Agency is bound to have an interest in this. The Agency is bound to have an interest in the measurable reduction of issues like salmonella and campylobacter but it will not necessarily be the body that does the work. The industry will be encouraged to do the work, not ordered by the Agency. It is in everybody's interest that they reduce these problems but they are measurable as well which is important because it may be one of the targets that is used.

  69.  That is exactly my point. The British food industry has delivered last year the biggest drop since records began——
  (Mr Rooker)  That is no excuse for saying you do not need the Agency.

  70.  —— of salmonella cases without this bureaucracy and without the burden that is going to be put on the industry. They delivered it themselves.
  (Mr Rooker)  I do not accept that is an argument for not proceeding with the Agency.
  (Tessa Jowell)  If I can just add to that point. I think the other contributory factor to the reduction in salmonella has been pretty successful public education about how you avoid salmonella because if you cook eggs properly and so forth and make sure that very elderly people and very young children do not eat half cooked eggs then you make a major impact on reducing the risk. I think it is very difficult to point to one cause which has contributed to a welcome reduction. Let me just go back to your earlier point, or Peter Brand's earlier point about the way in which the Agency will operate which I think does take us back to the discussion that we had earlier about the judgment that was made in relation to green top milk as opposed to the judgment that was made in relation to beef on the bone. The Bill, as it is drafted, sets out in clause 1 a very clear but broad statement of the Food Standards Agency's purpose and then in clauses 18 and 19 it sets out the approach that the Agency is expected to adopt in fulfilling those broad purposes. If I can just perhaps deal with your question—which I think is very important—about the precautionary principles. The problem is that the precautionary principle is frequently used as a cover all justification for a particular course of action but the fact is that there is no generally agreed definition of the precautionary principle. There is a broad understanding of what it probably means but you cannot define it in legislation in a way that would make it useful or would provide a very clear definition for the Agency or for the public of the way in which the Agency would approach its task which is why, as I think Jeff's answer on these two particular points has very clearly demonstrated, the sort of tests that the Agency will be expected to meet will be tests that take account of risk, that take account of proportionality and also take account of the costs and benefit of particular courses of action.

Dr Brand:  But who determines the mixture of those considerations? Clearly you can take it from one approach which is you shall stop anything that might do any harm to the other approach of saying you shall not introduce anything that might increase the cost or the viability of a particular introduction process.

Chairman:  I thought the Minister was trying to say exactly that.

Dr Brand:  Who makes that decision?

Chairman:  I spent two hours last week trying to get a definition of the precautionary principle. I did not find it last week, I found it a little bit clearer but it seems to mean all things to all people.

Dr Brand

  71.  I would like the Minister to respond. Is it the Chairman of the Agency who determines where the Agency is coming from or will it be the Minister and who is accountable for that assessment?
  (Tessa Jowell)  The Agency itself within the framework which is established by Parliament will determine the way in which it is going to work. These are precisely the kinds of considerations that will shape the kind of advice that comes from the Agency to ministers. We are very clear that it is important if the Agency is to be regarded by the public, taken seriously, taken seriously by Parliament, that it provides advice which is sensible, which is proportionate, which is well rooted in evidence and represents sound judgment in an area where you cannot make a rule that will cover every circumstance.

Mrs Organ

  72.  I want to ask you about probably the most controversial bit of all of this which is the levy. Not on the face of the Bill but it is obviously a matter that concerns many people in the industry. I wonder if I could ask you first of all whether the decision to have a levy was as a result of the fact that the Treasury was not going to stump up the funds or was it that you felt that it was a good idea to have everybody committed to this Agency because if you are paying a bit towards it then you are going to get involved with it and the philosophical joining together of elements of the food chain?
  (Mr Rooker)  I will be as frank with you as I possibly can be, notwithstanding what I have just heard from David Curry. The Government took a decision that the food industry should make a bigger contribution to food standards and safety than hitherto. At the time we took that decision that was a very early principle decision because there were going to be some costs. We had not worked it out, the decision was taken in principle. As you can see, when we published the White Paper we indicated that there would be some additional costs. There is a diseconomy of scale for a start. We are setting up an Agency most of whose work already takes place within two departments and local government so there is a diseconomy of scale there I accept. We took a view that the industry should be asked to make a contribution. We gave a for instance, if you like, in the White Paper that if we had to raise £60 million, and at that time we were unsure about the figure, of extra money and there were, it so happens, 600,000 retail outlets, catering, it was only £100 a year. That was given as a for instance. We had no fixed view at that time about the levy because we then spent the rest of 1998 up until the publication of this discussing how we would do that. The fact of the matter is to get the Agency set up and to get it working does require new resources. Those resources are not available within MAFF or DH, therefore we had to seek a way of finding some new resources. There was a parliamentary answer back in July, I think it was the last one day of the sitting, that as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review we would not seek to raise more than £50 million a year for each of the three years because we have not actually got to the beginning of the CSR yet, it starts in the next financial year. We have worked around that figure. It was obviously better honed in and targeted as the weeks and months went by. We then thought that is the kind of figure we need, how do we raise it? That then became the issue that we spent some months discussing which has resulted in this paper.

  73.  If we were saying that we wanted elements of the industry to be paying for food standards, why have we said the farmers and food producers and processors, they are exempt and yet they are the ones who possibly need to do the greatest monitoring along the chain? Why have we just hit out at the retailers and the caterers and the consumers in that way?
  (Mr Rooker)  The answer to that is absolutely simple, crystal clear. Your supposition may be right on where the problems arise but if we did it that way we would be discriminating against British food producers and I have to say in the last couple of years I have probably attended the best part of nearly 50 meetings on the concept of the FSA. It got to the point where not one meeting went by before somebody asked "how are you going to make sure that this Agency does not discriminate against British food and British food manufacturers?" The only way you do that if you are going to do the levy is to go for it at the retail catering end because that is where you catch all the foods. If you do the food manufacturing industry, the factories, I think the figure is 8,000, I am not certain, there are 200,000 farms or thereabouts, probably a bit more than that, then you can see you have got quite a lot to play with, as it were, but they are all British producers. The factories are producing British food, the farmers are growing British food. We would be discriminating if we sought to collect the money there against foreign producers. That is the reason we have gone down that route. Retail and catering is where you catch all the food imported and home produced.

  74.  So it is all right to hit the hospitality and tourist industry to make them uncompetitive against the Europeans?
  (Mr Rooker)  It is the same argument about tax on hotel beds I would have thought. It is not designed to hit any particular industry. This is an important point of principle, the levy, I accept that, and I know that it has caused some distress but we have to get it in proportion. We are talking about £90 a year from retail and catering outlets, not a week or a month, a year, collected in the cheapest possible way we have found to do it. If anyone can come up with a system that is as cheap, that is practical, that does not require a bigger bureaucracy, we will look at it. I freely admit that. We have put in the paper the kinds of things we looked at as options to avoid a flat rate levy. A flat rate levy is very simple to collect, low cost, very seductive. I can remember Baroness Thatcher saying exactly the same thing about the Poll Tax.

  75.  It is the same price for Rita's Sandwich Bar as it is for the Ritz Hotel.
  (Mr Rooker)  I invite you, the Committee, and anybody else, bearing in mind the principle decision that has been taken that we do need those extra resources, without them there will not be a Food Standards Agency, let me make that clear, to come up with an alternative that is practical, does not require an army of bureaucrats, collects the same amount of money, and we will look at it.

Mr Curry

  76.  But it is being looked at already.
  (Mr Rooker)  It says it is a consultation paper. The idea that a Government puts out a consultation paper and the minute it says "we will have a think about something else" it becomes a u-turn, they do not know what they are doing, that was the way the old Government used to work, we are not working like that. This is a genuine consultation. I have said it more than once, if someone can come up with another alternative with those parameters we will look at it. That is no different from what the Prime Minister said.

Mrs Organ

  77.  I can understand the philosophy of going for a uniform levy because it is easy to administer.
  (Mr Rooker)  Sure.

Mrs Organ:  But is it not just as easy to look at, say, floor space?

Mr Curry:  That was what we said for the Poll Tax actually.

Mrs Organ

  78.  The large multiple retailers should be paying a certain share and we do not then hit the small village shops in rural areas. That is fairly easy to administer, we know exactly what the floor space is.
  (Mr Rooker)  I beg to differ. I thought I had found the Holy Grail one day last summer. I walked into the Department and said "I have cracked it. Why do we not charge the firms that can only open for six hours on a Sunday", because I know there is a floor space limitation on that, 3,000 square feet, more than those who can open all day because they will be the small family businesses?" and they said "ah, Minister, that sounds a good idea but the big boys are selling things other than food. Someone will have to go and measure the part for food". The minute you have to measure anything, whether it is a balance sheet, the number of employees, rateable values we looked at, floor space, you have got some bureaucrats. You have an add on cost of collection. The present arrangement of organisations that by law have to be registered, the register is already made for us subject to the exemption we have given about the wrapped confectionary. Yes, it is seductive. If we can find a way of making it work to graduate it we will do so. I freely admit this is a consultation, time is short, although it is not that short because obviously Clause 23 of the Bill is very much an enabling clause, and the levy, or whatever it is called, would be subject to secondary legislation which would require consultation. We are some way down the road from that but we do need some good practical ideas worked up on our desks and we will look at them. Please can we have some more ideas.

  79.  Your argument is that it is a set-up cost, I think, to help with that and some of the other services that we have been talking about earlier. I am a little concerned that it is not going to be just for one year only, this levy, it is going to be done year on year over the three years, in which case it is not just a set-up cost, this is going to be a tax on those businesses from now until whenever.
  (Mr Rooker)  With respect, I would invite you to look at page three of the consultation paper, Annex 1, paragraph three. One cost spread over three years, £12 million, the recurring costs, including collection costs, £29 million, ie £41 million. The set-up costs are spread over three years, £12 million. We have not said what will happen after the three years because we are working to the Comprehensive Spending Review limits of three years. The plan is to review it in the second year so that we do not run on. The Government is being run differently in terms of the way the Treasury figures are done now.

Mrs Organ:  Could they expect, retailers and caterers, that after three years there will be a lessening of the levy?

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 12 April 1999