Examination of Witnesses(Questions 60
WEDNESDAY 24 FEBRUARY 1999
and THE RT
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
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
(Mr Rooker) We cannot guarantee 100 per cent.
(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
Mr Paterson: Despite
your self-confessed inadequacies, last year
Dr Brand: I want to
dissociate myself from that remark, it was totally unnecessary.
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
(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 questionwhich I think is very importantabout
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Mrs Organ: Could they
expect, retailers and caterers, that after three years there will
be a lessening of the levy?