Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 251 - 259)




  251.  Could I welcome you, Professor James. The Committee is very pleased you are able to come along here this afternoon, effectively being the author of this proposed legislation, the initial author of the proposed legislation. I just wonder if you could briefly tell the Committee, do you still agree with all your initial conclusions which were drawn up prior to the public consultation and also, whether or not you think that any of the areas in which the White Paper or this draft Bill now differ from your initial recommendations are likely to hamper the effectiveness of the Agency?
  (Professor James)  If I may take the first point. I think it is right to say that I am delighted that so much has come through of my original proposals in this draft Bill. I think that you will be aware that I responded to the original White Paper and I see that this draft Bill is essentially presenting the legal mechanism whereby the principles set out in the White Paper can be achieved. There were minor differences between what I proposed and what the White Paper specified and I interpret the draft Bill as in keeping with the White Paper rather than my original proposals. There are minor differences in the way in which I would now present proposals when I compare my current views with those of May 1997. I think these relate primarily to new issues of external relations and, for example, the importance of the European dimension with which I am now much more familiar, being so heavily involved in the Brussels committees. The second area by virtue of my currently chairing a United Nations Commission on Food for Global for Food Needs is, I suddenly realised, about a year ago, that I had not given enough attention to issues that confront port authorities in trying to monitor the nature of food that is coming in on an import basis rather than an export basis. Those are complex issues but I think that in my original proposals I should have highlighted some of those in a much clearer way than I did. Now when it comes to differences between what I proposed and what I see enacted I think it is fair to say that I believe that there is a need to have a very big cultural shift in many dimensions of those organisations which deal with food safety. Indeed, originally, I was, of course, naturally criticised for specifying this need for certain groups, for example the veterinary medicine area and the public analyst area. It is interesting that since we have got over the first phase—the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and indeed—on reading the two reports from Scotland and England and Wales on the Public Analyst system—it seems to me that the judgment that we made for the need for a complete reorganisation in effect comes through in those documents. The other components that I proposed, which have not come through, relate to the pesticides and veterinary medicines' issue and I think the actual organisation of particular committees, for example the SEAC BSE Committee. They are still sitting half way between the Agency and other responsibilities. I think the issues of the expert advisory agencies and the way that they have retained, if you like, their independence is a natural expectation of senior scientists like myself who love to be involved in relating to the people in power and also all the issues and do not particularly want to have their operations transferred to some new mysterious entity. I think the way in which the proposals have been developed in the draft Bill now pre-suppose a much more proactive role for the Agency if the Agency is going to achieve what I think is necessary. So the burden on the Agency has been enhanced by virtue of it not having as many powers as I originally proposed but, to be fair, the compromises have emerged doubtless from negotiations within Government between different Civil Service groups, as I think is self-evident. I think the big issue is whether in fact this Agency can create a new climate of opinion, analysis and proactivity in terms of really digging deep into some of these issues. Will it be able to do that when it is now in powerful control of these bodies, I think those are the sorts of issues which concern me. The funding question is another one which is very different. You maybe want to deal with that separately. I proposed, slightly provocatively—and I did not expect it to come through—that the funding for local authority enforcement would be channelled through the Agency and that the funds for the Public Health Laboratory Service, food related microbiology—would be channelled through the Agency without in any way dislocating the function of the Public Health Laboratory. That of course has not happened. Those issues impose on the Agency a greater need to be highly effective in specifying the standards and monitoring and the interrogative processes if that Agency is going to develop and be shown to be effective as distinct from being a talking shop.

  252.  Thank you for that. Obviously it is a very honest analysis. Do you believe that the draft legislation could have been better or do you think that by necessity these negotiations have taken place and left things outside of legislation or outside of the proposed Agency that you would have liked to have seen? Has that weakened it?
  (Professor James)  I think it is fair to say that in early discussions after the election with Ministers they were very conscious of the need to try to maintain the principles as the negotiations were being advanced. I think that it might have helped to overcome some of the concerns, in fact, if there had been an overt external advisory group. I had originally envisaged an advisory commission of some sort, and that would have been better, I think. Originally I took it quietly through Cabinet Office officials and the Constitution Unit and was assured that it was a totally appropriate entity. A few days after the election I then discovered that it was considered unconstitutional and the more I look at it, I think the principles of what one would have tried to achieve need not have infringed the constitutional process. I think it might be better for our society to have seen the process by which the Agency was being established as well as being involved eventually once it is established. But it is easy to say that now. I did propose it, but that was seen to be a difficult thing to achieve at the time.

Chairman:  I think we will try and move on now and take the particular areas that the Bill covers which hopefully you have got opinions on. Howard Stoate?

Dr Stoate

  253.  I would like to look at the scope of the Agency's work. Clearly the Agency would be involved in two major areas of work, firstly obviously in health protection, the microbiological side of this food safety, and secondly health promotion by nutrition and labelling. What I would like to ask you is do you think the balance in the Bill is about right?
  (Professor James)  I see this Agency—we specified at its very beginning—as in an evolutionary process. What is becoming apparent already—just take the recent GMO issue—is the way in which you can have a surge in public opinion and scientific involvement and decision making which requires a very different perception of what the Agency should be doing. In discussions with my assistant, Karen McColl, whom I should have introduced—my apologies—when we were developing our proposals, it was very obvious from our discussions with the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, that the most crucial thing in the drafting of the Bill is not to have everything set down in such concrete terms that this Agency is specified precisely as doing X and Y. Because if you do that you are burdening that Agency in such a way that it is going to not be able to cope with the astonishing range of issues which actually emerge. Why do I say that in that context? Simply because the health protection rather than the health promotion is the obsession of the last two years: BSE, e.coli 157, salmonella, now GMO. As I indicated, I think to an expert committee in this House, it is really inevitable that in fact people and the body politic will see that the judgments need to be taken on a protection basis even though, as we made clear in our original analysis and subsequently, the health promotion aspects in practice, from a public health point of view, have much greater quantitative and economic importance actually.

  254.  I entirely agree with you there which is why I am asking because we obviously have to make sure that the legislation that is proposed by the Government is robust enough and wide ranging enough to ensure that with changing circumstances, changing public expectations and changing political analyses the Agency will continue to cope under all those circumstances. That is why I am really trying to get your view on whether the legislation will be robust enough to ensure the Agency can be flexible enough that we do not end up with an unbalanced Agency at the end of the day.
  (Professor James)  It is a very difficult question to answer because part of the analysis relating to health promotion deals with concordats principally between the Agency and Government Departments. Now how those concordats are developed and whether the Agency properly, in my view, is very proactive in specifying what they think is required and whether that concordat is developed in almost a semi-public way rather than secretly negotiated and the time lines for that concordat then also become important. You can imagine, I guess, a mood change in Government where a particular set of Departments and Ministers, and I have had personal experience of this in the last 20 years, feel that this particular area is of no consequence at all. Then it is really very difficult indeed to get movement. In the way that the draft Bill is set up, by definition food safety and food health issues extend so broadly across Government it would be ridiculous for that Agency to be totally responsible for all those because it would impact on so many other dimensions, which are the proper legislative responsibilities of the Departments. I still believe that this Agency is going to be troubled because it is going to be very difficult to be positive and to enter into agreements with Government Departments if those Ministers are not so minded to help but have that and that is inevitable as part of the process. I am sorry to be so blunt.

  255.  That is fair enough actually but it does give me some cause for concern because you said earlier that the public health function is a much broader issue and probably far more important to the longevity and overall health of the nation. We have been taking evidence from witnesses before that says actually microbiological safety is a very small issue compared with nutrition which obviously could have a much greater overall long term effect on people's health. If this Agency is going to get bogged down with food safety matters and the occasional outbreak, are we going to miss the boat in terms of actually improving the public health?
  (Professor James)  Thank you. Originally in our proposals we proposed a very big distinction between the Commission and the Executive. Now apparently I understand that the legal draftsman, and I use the Health and Safety Executive analysis and analogy as a way of simplifying this, I am told that he said the distinction is unnecessary. The benefit of so displaying it in our proposals was to make an important distinction between the policy development which was exclusively a Commission or upper echelon entity and the Executive which had the proper responsibility for surveillance and action which I saw much more as involved in these microbiological issues. When you are dealing with nutrition, which has been highly controversial here in Britain and people, and experts abroad think we are living in the 19th century in terms of our attitudes towards nutrition. But given our perspective, it is clear I think to me that the nutrition/health area is very much a Commission or a top level operation. Otherwise people will misinterpret it and they will say "What, this enforcement authority is now going to tell everybody that they must have so much vitamin E per day and they darn well better eat this, that and the other". That is a ridiculous view of the proactive approach to nutrition. So I think there is a lot of confusion to get over and I think the nutrition/health development will very much depend on what emerges in this early phase of reconsidering public health in Britain. Public health in Britain has been vestigial in terms of Department of Health responsibilities and actions for decades—since the founding of the National Health Service actually. The question is how is nutrition going to actually be incorporated into an effective way for public health? I would guess the Minister, who I understand was a witness here, will be trying to see how to blend activities of the Food Standards Agency with a proper public health function of the Department. I think that the problem will be that most people see nutrition and health promotion in a rather antiquated health educational mode.


  256.  Does that mean that you do not see the Food Standards Agency as the lead Agency on nutrition? Is that what you are saying?
  (Professor James)  I think that it will be the lead Agency on a whole host of issues relating to nutrition. You just have to look at the FDA range of analyses that they have to go through, simply in legislative terms, in terms of nutrition, in terms of novel foods, in terms of labelling, in terms of a special foods for particular needs. There is a whole host of enormous issues which in fact the Agency will have to be fundamentally primarily involved in. I think when it comes to actually the health promotion you are dealing with a whole host of other issues, for example catering standards in schools and, the mechanism by which the Education Department deals with how the school environment is developed. We actually put in to the Ministries after the election a further report on school nutrition and health which was again a little controversial because we believe that the diet and health of British school children is really surprisingly poor——

  257.  I agree.
  (Professor James)  —— compared with most European Union countries. The Scandinavian experience suggests that we need to be much more proactive. I do not think that the Agency is likely to be given, in the British climate, responsibility for specifying to the Department for Education precisely what the Department for Education should be doing in a school context. Therefore, I think that the Agency should have a role but to define that in legal terms would be quite difficult and that is why I think that I am fudging on the issue of how you would write a Bill which would allow the positive aspects of nutrition to be pushed by the Agency. I think that this is something on which the Agency will be judged and if it is failing that will be because the Department of Health has not co-operated or the Agency has not seen its role in an effective way.

  258.  That is the point I am trying to get at. You have already said that it is now immensely complex, nutrition policy cuts across every Government department and is an immensely complex area. If the Food Standards Agency is not going to make that simpler and more straight forward then what is it going to do with nutrition? From your answers it may make it more complex and not less and that would surely be a disaster.
  (Professor James)  I see the Agency's role to be so fundamentally involved, for example, in the development of policy in the sorts of sagas we have had over the last 30 years of huge conflicts of interest with major industrial groups wanting to modify and not believing particular analysis of public health and so on. I think the Agency's job will be to ensure that does not happen either by virtue of its being in total command of the secretariat and making major nominations, if not all nominations, to the proper analytical advisory committees. Even if it is only partly involved in a conjoint committee it has got to make very sure that particular interests are exposed and that the public health agenda is the primary one.

  259.  The bottom line and the point of my questioning is is it going to have the powers to make that work or is it just going to be another talking shop that issues nothing?
  (Professor James)  My problem in answering your question is that I am not a good enough lawyer—I am not a lawyer at all—I do not know what would be required to actually achieve that and still retain the normal responsibilities of the Department of Health.

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