Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)



  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 years ago.

  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 was.

  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.

Mr Jones

  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 members——I 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 do it.

  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 thought—and this is not a very satisfactory answer—the 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.

Mr Walter

  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 yourself—and I am not interviewing you for the job—would 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 the question.
  (Professor James)  I am sorry.

  291.  Would you consider an academic to be representative?
  (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 was on?
  (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 view—and this may sound shocking—would 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 having—not 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 thinking—and you will forgive me for this and I know that you are giving evidence before another Committee later on on this subject—of 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.

Mr Paterson

  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.

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