Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 327)



  320.  Have you noticed that in the draft Bill there are a number of occurrences of particular phrases? I can absolutely mention immediately clause 11, clause 13, clause 14, talking about giving advice, talking about making observations and talking about enforcement, and there are a couple of phrases that the Agency "must take account of any considerations of confidentiality attaching to the information" and then it "may publish that information if it appears to the Agency to be in the public interest to do so". So the public interest seems to me in that phraseology to come rather secondary to the "must take account of any confidentiality," and it does not seem to indicate in the draft Bill who decides what is confidential and who does not, and that exact phraseology is in all three of those clauses. There is another item which struck me peculiarly in the draft Bill: "The Secretary of State may, for the purpose of safeguarding national security, direct the Agency that any advice or information specified ... shall not be published, whether permanently or for a specified period." It did make me think about public interest immunity of ill-repute. Do you think that there could be circumstances where it was justified to say to the Food Standards Agency, "You will not publish information in the interests of national security"?
  (Professor James)  To answer that last question, no, I cannot, but that is probably because I have not been involved in those issues. I noticed that phrase. I also noticed the precise conjunction and different use of words that you spelt out. I think that is why I keep emphasising that one has to look at the operational opportunities in the draft Bill and then I see an entirely different issue as to how the Agency operates. In other words, is it going to be able to operate with that drafting, and what I have been pressed to say on occasion is how to change the drafting. As I have thought about it, it seemed to me that legal scholars would unravel me immediately if I tried to devise a more flexible or more extended opportunity for the Agency. So I think that is why the way in which this Agency is established and how it works and how it takes proactively the role of displaying its independence and coping with the doubtless, in Britain at the moment, endless barrage of "You don't understand, and this is X, Y and Z"—I think there is a cultural change in the public domain that we have to go through as well.

  321.  Finally, you mentioned that one of the things that you would do differently perhaps now, to an extent at any rate, is to put more emphasis on Europe-wide and international aspects. I wonder if you have any comments to make on the possibility of interference with the Food Standards Agency's views about food and advice about food by, in particular, the World Trade Organisation, which seems to have a rather different set of priorities, and how do you think this should be coped with? Do you think that free trade should be paramount or do think that food standards issues should be illegitimate?
  (Professor James)  Thank you. That is a huge issue that I will be discussing in about an hour's time and we have, in fact, given a lot of thought to it. I think the World Trade Organisation and the mechanism by which there are resolutions and debate relating to food safety are highly complex and inadequately coped with at the moment through the Codex system. I think the Codex system needs to be re-organised. I have been saying that for ten years. We put forward proposals for it and they are outraged by the proposition. It is a completely unrepresentative organisation, not with particular technical competence, and it actually has a bit of an "old hat" view of public health. I actually see that there is going to be the development of a major clash between Europe and the United States in terms of the look at public health. Therefore, I am proposing in a short while that Britain should be very proactive in public health in developing new systems for ensuring that the public interest is, indeed, seen to be of crucial importance. That also has to operate in the context of our current political system through the European Union. The European Union is amazingly receptive to the extraordinary talent—I am sorry about that but it is true—that you find here in Britain in a whole gamut of subjects that relate to your concerns and I think that we need to take a far more flexible, interactive approach to the DG XXIVs, VIs and IIIs in the Commission. I think that there is an enormous opportunity for Britain to influence things in such a way that the second stage then comes to the Codex Alimentarius. I think Britain ought to taking an initiative, again with its European colleagues. At the moment Codex is not working in practice. You only have to read the WHO recent article on it from its own staff officers. They are hopelessly disgruntled with the way Codex is operating and we need to see a reform of Codex. Then we will get into, and I think we should attempt to cope with, quite big issues that people have not thought about in terms of the world trade implications for Food Standards. The Agency is going to have to cope with this. That is why I said I thought I had not coped with that subject adequately in my original report and that is because I have just woken up to the dimensions of this as a result of sitting in Brussels and looking at the mind-boggling, multi-billion dollar issues that come across our desk weekly.

Rev. Martin Smyth

  322.  Professor James, earlier on you suggested that in the first three to five years the Agency would have to look at medicine control, nutrition and others. Is there anything in particular that you think they should be looking at in the first three years? Should they be concentrating on the internal affairs of the Agency, the mechanisms of its own working, or on external targets? Where do you think they should be concentrating first?
  (Professor James)  I actually believe that the Agency has to establish its reputation and the way in which the British think now is such that it will establish its reputation in classic food safety and food risk areas. I might think that the dimensions of health are more important in other areas but I think that if you fail, if that Agency fails, to cope with issues relating to E. Coli 157 and salmonella and so on and whatever the mood of the day is in GMOs, then in fact it is going to take ten to 20 years to establish its reputation if it completely blows it on these particular areas. Therefore, I would actually see the Agency priorities as risk analysis and, of course, it has to have a good communication unit and a media group but I think it is a big mistake to assume that this Agency is going to gain its reputation simply by virtue of having a clever group of media specialists associated with it. I think you have to demonstrate to sophisticated analytical journalists—and there are still a few left—that there are major changes going on with a deep and proper approach to some of the big issues that confront us at the moment. Without that, we are not going to succeed.

  323.  In other words, less spinning and better meat?
  (Professor James)  Yes.

  324.  May I, therefore, take you back to one of your earlier suggestions. I think you thought that the House should have a particular interest in the Food Standards Agency. Did that mean that you still stand by your view that there should be a select committee set up by government?
  (Professor James)  I actually believe that in terms of the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency to report and be interrogated in Parliament by a particular grouping then the issues are broad. At one stage I thought perhaps there would be a conjoined Committee of traditional agriculture members and traditional medical members, but the more I look at the issues of international trade, the issues of port authorities, the legislative approaches to Europe and so forth, I am not sure that you will not find that these issues are such that you might want to establish a special Select Committee. I do not know enough about your procedures and I feel very vulnerable in proposing any particular solution.

  325.  Normally select committees examine the role of departments and how they work. This would be one especially to deal with an Agency that covers several departments, at least at the moment. In your opinion, bearing in mind what has been happening in the past, how should the Agency guarantee the quality of the information it issues to Ministers and to the general public? Bearing in mind that we have gone through a period where Ministers were making statements saying this was the advice they were given and later on it was suspect advice, how do you think the Agency should guarantee the quality of advice given to Ministers and to the public at large?
  (Professor James)  Frankly, I do not think it can guarantee the quality of its advice simply because it will make mistakes. But the essence of the procedures must be that you have the best possible experts involved in garnering that advice for the public interest, and by public interest in this case I also mean involving non-professional interest challenging that process which should be open. Then if a mistake is made it is made, as it were, in good faith and I think that is part of the cultural change.

  326.  I understand that you cannot guarantee but you certainly think we can improve it?
  (Professor James)  I think there are all sorts of ways in which we can improve it. Having been on one of the MAFF/Department of Health committees where we opened it up to a scholar involved in ethics and a consumer group, the culture of that committee changed. It was quite interesting, as a Chairman of a committee talking with other chairs when convened by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, to see the British academic terror of having lay people associated with their esoteric discussions. I am all for it. It is time that British academics learned that they have a lot to learn from that process.


  327.  Can I ask you to clarify one situation, Professor James. In answer to David Curry earlier and his query about who the Agency should report to you said originally that you thought it ought to report to the Cabinet Office. Why was that your original recommendation and does it come out of the debate that has been around for quite a long time now that public health should be a government departmental issue, in other words the Minister of Public Health would sit outside the Department of Health probably in Cabinet?
  (Professor James)  It was precisely that sort of mood that had me thinking. I did not know where the Minister of Public Health would be positioned. Logically and traditionally everybody would assume that it is in the Department of Health. Obviously there has got to be extra-ordinary interaction. With the nature of public health and its development it is crucially dependent on multi-sector multi-department activity which intrinsically—and I spoke to David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on this very issue—the logic would be to have this sort of activity reporting to the centre rather than to be involved in what is sometimes petty jostling for position between departments, which you know about much better than I.

Chairman:  We will have to see how the evolution of this Food Standards Agency in its other parts works out in the next few months. Professor James, can I thank you and your colleague for coming along and giving evidence. I think it has been extremely useful. We are on a very tight timetable and we hope in seven days' time we will be finished evidence taking and drawing up our report. I am sure that the influence you have been over the years now in this area is going to do not just good for parliamentarians but I hope eventually to do some good for public health as well. Thank you for attending.
  (Professor James)  Thank you for your questions.

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