Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280
MONDAY 8 MARCH 1999
JAMES and MS
280. So we can bridge these two points.
According to you you can still have the legislation as it is described
here but you can still have a much wider attack upon nutrition
policy, if you like, because that does not depend upon the legislative
terms and nor does it depend upon a specific remit as such of
the Agency, it depends upon the ability to create a broader action,
as it were?
(Professor James) Yes, but I do think it is important
that the remit for nutrition is included in the Agency, otherwise
the international experience is that it will be ridiculed. That
is quite different from saying that you should have in law a specification
of the precise limits of its activity and everything that we were
told before the Election and that we have learned since is you
really have to have an Agency that has an evolutionary component
and, putting it crudely, learns by its mistakes too. If you do
not recognise that this Agency is going to have to evolve then
you have not understood the way in which the food health world,
with huge industrial involvement, has evolved at an astonishing
pace over the last 40 years.
281. So what would be the geometry, as it
were, of the organisation or the contacts or the links to deliver
the sort of programme you have been talking about?
(Professor James) Are you still talking about
nutrition and public health?
282. Yes. Either we are going to say this
must be an extremely tightly defined operation, which is why I
put my first question, to see where you lay on this, or the Agency
will stimulate a much broader policy initiative which will take
a generation to deliver it. If the Government were to decide that
that is what it seeks, what is the political geometry or the political
geography of delivering it?
(Professor James) I think the political geometry
would require that this Agency speak to the Minister of Public
Health and say to the Minister of Public Health that we think
we have not been making remotely the right progress in terms of
public health in a nutritional context and that we ought to establish
a special task force to look at the constituent responsibilities
of different government departments and groups, including, for
example, the Health Education Authority and the Food Standards
Agency which has an enormous influence on nutritional questions
because, for example, in the analytical and regulatory process
relating to novel foods and a whole range of things as well as
labelling it would have a major role to play and the question
then would be which government departments have responsibility
and you can list them quite readily and then you say, "Okay,
can we have a concordat with specific objectives and this is how
we go about it ..." We did that in Scotland two or three
283. Would it not make more sense if this
Agency were answerable to the Cabinet Office, which is supposed
to be the co-ordinator and the "enforcer" of policy
and where joined-up writing is supposed to take place? Would it
not make sense for it to report there rather than to one department
with one of the major on-line responsibilities as it were?
(Professor James) Yes, and indeed that was one
of the alternative proposals that we put in our original paper
because you could argue that a Minister of Public Health should
properly be in the main Cabinet Office because their responsibility
and effectiveness depends upon the interaction and effectiveness
of other departments and, therefore, we had two alternative proposals.
The whole proposal that I came up with would not work if it retained
a direct MAFF line simply because every constituency that we met
said that it just would not roll if you continued that line. We
actually saw that it might well be a Cabinet Office line that
was required, but we also recognised that at that stage it was
not at all clear. The central Cabinet Office was being seen as
a new mechanism to get more effective inter-sectoral activity
and so one option we put in was that if you are going to have
to choose from different leaders it ought to be health because
that would symbolise what the primary responsibility of this Agency
284. If you were writing your report today
would you be tempted to make that positive recommendation that
it should report to the Cabinet Office?
(Professor James) Yes, I would.
285. I would like to ask you a couple of
questions, Professor James, about the structures and independence
of the Agency. At the beginning of your statement today you said
something about a commission, some sort of advisory body which
has not been taken up in the Bill. Can you expand on that first?
(Professor James) I apologise. The original idea
of the Health and Safety Executive was that you had a commission
at the top which was interacting with Government and being an
advisory group and then you had an executive group and I understand
that the Parliamentary lawyers have come along saying, "Why
do you have to have two separate entities? Why cannot it be one?"
And so now the commission is regarded as the membership, but I
do not think that the functions really change. I would see that
that membership or the Agency membersI think it
needs a sexier title. I will persist with my commission just to
keep the concept going. What is very important is that only the
commission members are involved in that interaction with Government.
That came through powerfully on the basis of the last 20/30 years'
experience because of the need to preserve independence and if
you get a merging of cross-talk right down the line you find that
the responsibility and sense of independence of that Agency is
diffused and it is dangerous. That was one of the most powerful
pieces of advice that we got from ex-Agency staff and people who
had moved from the department into the Agency and back. Therefore,
I think that the top commission would have a whole series of advisory
groups coming in and that would be setting up policies which could
be quite wide-ranging but would depend upon super expert groups
and would be seen within the context of the overall political
as well as other needs of this Agency. These policies would then
be considered by the membership of the commission. It is those
individuals who are responsible for specifying the importance
of the independence of that Agency and negotiating with Government
should there be a difference of opinion. That is what came through
again and again and again, i.e. whatever the political complexion
of the current Government the message was you must retain that
sense of independence and these are the mechanisms by which you
286. That leads me nicely onto the next
question which is about the independence of the Agency. The Government
White Paper talked of the majority of the commissioners being
from public interest and no industry interests. In your report
you argue that industry interests should be in a structured minority.
It has now been argued that the Bill weakens this with its declaration
of interest approach. How will consumers have any confidence in
the Agency if a significant proportion of its board have a vested
interest in industry and its output?
(Professor James) I considered that when I read
the draft Bill and there is this debate. I am not sure that we
originally specified it, but we could see that one member of this
really quite small board should be reflecting and seen to be an
individual who really understood the food industry and another
that understood the agricultural industry and another who understood
the retail industry. There is a positive benefit we construed
despite quite major consumer opposition to that. I think that
there is major benefit in having that expertise and range of knowledge
and involvement in that top group, but I do believe that it is
important that the public interest groups are actually in the
majority and that is not specified. I guessed that it was not
specified in the draft Bill, whereas the national representation
was simply because within a legal context it would be important
I guessed that if there is a Scottish Parliament led by one political
party and a Whitehall Parliament led by another it might be important
to ensure that as of right that Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly
or Northern Irish or Irish body had the responsibility to get
into the FSA. The question is whether you would normally have
in a Bill a specification that the majority should be public interest.
I was unclear whether that would normally be seen to be proper
in legislation but I think that, in fact, it would be required.
287. I think it would be required as well.
Would you like to see this Committee make a recommendation to
government to legislate in that way, actually to specify that
the majority of people on the Agency should be public interest
in one way or another, maybe even down to the number of agencies
they represent or NGOs or outside bodies or whatever?
(Professor James) I think that we were very clear
in our original analyses that one has to be careful that one does
not specify people as coming from a particular area, so that we
had a lot of lobbying that particular groups should be represented
on the top body and we rapidly realised that that was wrong, but
the generic statement I think is correct.
288. So the generic statement is correct
but how do you then get to that end if you are saying that you
do not think the legislation should specify a particular body?
How do you then make sure that you are going to have a wide range
of public interest people on the Agency?
(Professor James) I would have thoughtand
this is not a very satisfactory answerthe fact is that
this Agency is not going to work unless it is seen by the public
as essentially being dominated by public interest. This Agency
could collapse within a couple of years in terms of its public
image and, as I have said throughout, it is going to have a series
of crises and the way it actually operates and behaves in those
crises will determine how it is seen. If the Government decides
that it will pack the whole Agency with abattoir owners, they
will not get very far.
Mr Curry: There will
not be many abattoir owners left.
289. I want to pursue that point a little
before talking about the staffing and the executive of the Agency
in terms of who represents the public interest. Would you consider
somebody in a quasi-academic role, such as yourselfand
I am not interviewing you for the jobwould represent the
public interest or the industry's interest?
(Professor James) I think that I see the public
interest as those individuals who do not have an intrinsic personal
major commercial interest in a component of the food chain.
290. I am not sure that is the answer to
(Professor James) I am sorry.
291. Would you consider an academic to be
(Professor James) An academic would be a public
interest person, as long as he or she was not an academic who
had an honourary appointment at the University of Galaxies and
whose main job, in fact, was the chief executive of a food supplier.
292. But if it were an academic who was,
let us say, holding a chair with a foundation that had substantial
funding from an organisation involved in, say, GM foods, would
that not bring into question which side of the fence he or she
(Professor James) Yes, I think it would, and I
think that that would be all part of the judgement as to whom
one would appoint. My viewand this may sound shockingwould
be that actually it is a big mistake not to have people who are
phenomenally knowledgeable and competent about the whole arena
at the very high levels involved in this Agency. The idea that
you just have public interest groups, large sections of whom may
not have a clue about the detailed operation of the food chain,
I think is crazy. That is why I think on expert advisory groups
it is entirely appropriate to have experts who are literally employed
by different companies who may or may not make submissions, and
it is very important that it is so specified, it is absolutely
open and the people then have to make a judgement, and you will
find that if you do operate in an open system, as distinct from
a secret system, the behaviour of people changes quite remarkably.
293. I wonder if I could go on and look
at the executive of the Agency, the senior employees, if you like.
I wonder who you think should form that body and who should lead
it? What sort of person should lead it?
(Professor James) I think an extremely effective
manager who might actually not need to be highly technically qualified
but would need to be very well aware of the importance of organisation,
developing processes, management of large groups; the individual
might have a legal background.
294. And who should be the directors, the
full-time people on this, who will be heading up the Agency?
(Professor James) You have directors of Scotland,
Wales, Northern Ireland and so on. For example, I see no reason
why businessmen should not have been brought in if they were highly
effective in organisational terms. I think that is a bonus. It
is the quality of their operating skills rather than their selective
background that is important.
295. What do you think is the ideal bounds
of expertise on the executive? What would be the ideal bounds
of the expertise on the executive? They should come from different
backgrounds. I think you are suggesting that there should be a
variety of backgrounds but with a variety of backgrounds somebody
may come from the food industry and somebody else may come from
one of these public interest groups, let us say. Do you see a
conflict there, an internal conflict?
(Professor James) No. There may be internal conflict
but I think it is a positive bonus to have people from these backgrounds.
Indeed, I think it was in our original report that we envisaged
that there could be benefit for the Agency to make sure it does
not get culturally bound and remains switched on by havingnot
revolving people but people seconded in and seconded out as part
of the process. I think this Agency is going to have to be far
more involved in people skills than has traditionally been true
in the rather boring area of classical food safety, where you
get people who just think, I have to do 1,000 analyses and yes,
you tick boxes, and that is a disaster.
296. So you envisage the Agency having what
I might call a new culture?
(Professor James) Yes. We are quite clear that
one will need to develop a new culture and that would be a very
important responsibility of the chief executive as well.
297. If I could look at maybe some of the
problems that could be involved in running the Agency with regard
to devolved government, my colleague David Curry has already alluded
to this slightly but let us look at the situation in terms of
structural decision-taking in terms of the Agency's advice and
pick up the example of green-top milk, which is at present banned
in Scotland but not in England but the Agency has a United Kingdom
responsibility. Is the Scottish director going to come to the
Agency and say, "I think you should do this in England,"
and how would you resolve that particular problem? That is just
an example but I think it is a good one.
(Professor James) Yes, it is indeed. I think that
under the current legislation it is seen to be appropriate for
England to have a different approach to things from Wales, Scotland
and Northern Ireland, so if the English are so foolish as to allow
non-pasteurised milk, then it seems to me that that would come
Let me see if I can think it through. The Agency, if it had the
proper policies, would be suggesting that unpasteurised milk should
not be allowed. It would then be for the government to say, "Sorry,
folks, we are going to allow it." The Agency then, on the
basis of public health, would be saying, "From our point
of view this is clearly published. These are the reasons you should
not be allowing that." Thank goodness the directors in Scotland
with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have more
sense and are, in fact, enacting that within those territories.
I hope I am not fudging that issue.
298. Okay. Perhaps I could again look at
the other areas of possible internal conflict and look at internal
scientific conflict in terms of the evidence you might receive
and the different personalities, the different backgrounds of
people, both in terms of the directors and in terms of the members
of the Agency itself. I was thinkingand you will forgive
me for this and I know that you are giving evidence before another
Committee later on on this subjectof a recent example that
involved you yourself within your own organisation. How would
you cope with a situation if you were involved in the executive
of the Agency whereby you had a body of academic evidence that
seemed to conflict with your own thinking as an executive? Obviously
Dr Pusztai's evidence on GM foods was, you felt, inappropriate
and it was inappropriate that he should make it public. How do
you think you would cope with that if a similar situation happened
within the context of the Food Standards Agency?
(Professor James) That is quite an interesting
question because I think there is a fundamental distinction between
where I sit as Director of the Rowett Research Institute and what
the Agency's responsibility would be. It seems to me that the
information coming from an institute such as my own would in fact
be provided to this Agency. The Agency would then have an expert
advisory group which would be looking at this evidence. There
would be this character James, Director of the Rowett, and Pusztai
who suddenly, if you believe some of the newspapers, inappropriately
is blowing the whistle. You then have this information going to
the Food Standards Agency and they would put it to their committees.
They could not care whether James or Pusztai or whoever it is
is right or wrong. They want to know what the truth is. If they
then say, "On the basis of that our advice would be"and
here I am beginning to go into what I might say in an hour or
two's time"if there is a problem how far do we need
to go before we make a change of policy, that is for the Food
Standards Agency to determine and it has got nothing to do with
that institute up in Scotland." Therefore when the chief
executive has his scientific officers they have got no "right"
to have an opinion other than to put challenges during the course
of these advisory group meetings to those experts, but it is those
experts in fact who are providing the advice and it is the chief
executive's or director's responsibility that the policies that
emerge from that top level policy decision are made by the appropriate
expert group, having had clearance from what I call the commission
members. Am I clear?
Mr Walter: I wanted
to go on and look at the Meat Hygiene Service but my colleague
Owen Paterson knows a lot more about the Meat Hygiene Service
than I do so I am going to defer to him, if I may, Mr Chairman.
299. You were pretty critical in your original
report about the Meat Hygiene Service reporting to MAFF saying,
in effect, that it was not independent and was beholden to producer
interests. Will the Meat Hygiene Service be independent reporting
to the Food Standards Agency?
(Professor James) As I understand it, yes. It
is an appropriate chain.