Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 409)



Dr Brand

  400.  Can we ask a few questions about how effective this Agency is going to be? Ms Nunn said that there was a need to review enforcement and regulatory procedures. Most of us that came to this fresh are absolutely amazed by the complexity of what currently exists and we are not much clearer about what is being proposed. Do you think that the proposals will make what we want to achieve more effective?
  (Mr Longworth)  For my part, the situation of the establishment of the Agency is really only the beginning. It has to be only the beginning; otherwise, the Agency will be in danger of not being proactive. There has been an attempt at least twice in the past, to my knowledge, to reform the structure of regulation enforcement in this area. It is long overdue. One of the things the Agency ought to do, in my view, is to provide expert advice and support to local enforcement agencies because the agencies at the moment suffer, through no fault of their own, from lack of resource, lack of expertise and that competence level needs to be looked at.

  401.  As a lawyer, are you happy that what is being drafted will allow the Agency to evolve into the sort of structure you are looking for?
  (Mr Longworth)  The draft arrangements have the capacity to do that. The Bill is enabling in that sense. What is not clear is the direction it is going. It is very much a question of public policy and there will have to be goodwill from interested parties active in this to ensure that it moves in the right direction. Certainly a coordination of local enforcement is very important. There is no reason why somebody who lives in Dundee should have different standards of enforcement and regulation to someone in Taunton. We all live on one island; we all deserve the same standards.

  402.  Yet the proposals suggest we continue with the independence of Environmental Health Officers, Trading Standards Officers and LACOTS being quite outside the Agency but having concordats with them or agreements with them.
  (Mr Longworth)  It is a complex arrangement. It is not the best arrangement, in my view. The Agency should take upon itself the authority to both monitor the performance, (an inspector of inspectorates), of local enforcement agencies. It should also review the way in which LACOTS and itself operate the coordination of enforcement in the United Kingdom and I think it should have the power—and probably does within the context of the Bill—to intervene where it feels that the local authority is not doing its job. It may even at some stage take the view that it has to deal with the largest businesses itself, rather in the way the Health and Safety Executive does vis a vis the local authorities who are agents for the Executive.
  (Ms Nunn)  It is reform that is needed and, while we can presume and hope that that will happen, it is not the same as having a copper bottomed promise. We will be looking to work very closely on behalf of our customers with the government, moving forward, because it is some proper improvement to the way food safety is enforced in this country that we want. I can go into some detail but I am aware that we are running out of time.

  403.  It might be helpful, if you have detailed comments on the actual clauses in the Bill, if you could drop us a line on them.
  (Ms Nunn)  Gladly.
  (Ms Stack)  We asked for the same things as Tesco. The Agency clearly has a role in auditing and monitoring. That is in the Bill and that is to be welcomed. We urged the government at the White Paper stage to look at things like the provision of advice on what the law means. That is currently carried out by LACOTS but it is not incumbent upon enforcement authorities to abide by it. There are problems with enforcement officers trying to understand all parts of the law and impose them in a consistent fashion. That clearly is a problem. It will always be a problem. It would be a problem if it was a national enforcement authority but I think the Agency does have a role in providing advice on what the law means.
  (Mr Longworth)  And scientific and technical advice also, which is something that local authorities do not have readily available to them.


  404.  Do you think that the Agency should set standards in terms of enforcement and proper targeting?
  (Mr Longworth)  Yes, I think it should set standards. My vision ideally would be that it has a role similar to the Health and Safety Executive where it issues codes of practice and guidelines to the enforcement authorities, not to the industry, guiding and directing the enforcement authorities on how to go about doing particular tasks so that you get both consistency and confidence being built up. It should also monitor the delivery of that and intervene if necessary. The authorities should be able to call upon the Agency for help and advice. When E coli 0157 first appeared, it may well have been something that was problematic for a local authority to deal with. They would not have known what they were dealing with very well and the Agency would be there to help them.

Mr Paterson

  405.  Do you not think its position is compromised by the fact that it will be the enforcement and the adjudication agency as far as the Meat Hygiene Service is concerned?
  (Mr Longworth)  I take your point. I think there is a difficulty in that respect. I have already said that the Agency itself may decide to take on the commanding heights of the food industry or whatever in the same way as the Health and Safety Executive acts as both a policy formulator and adjudicator, but also deals with the largest chemical industries and manufacturers. It may be that the Agency itself eventually decided it is going to deal with multisite businesses, for example, because that is the easiest way to deal with them. It is not necessarily my preference. I think it is quite possible that a home authority system could be made to work properly but it does not work properly at the moment.

  406.  Who do you think the Meat Hygiene Service should report to?
  (Mr Longworth)  I do not see any problem with the Meat Hygiene Service reporting to the Food Agency in principle. I think there is another issue which was raised earlier on, which is whether the Agency should also have access to primary production. It would have been a neater solution if the Agency had been able to control the entire food chain from primary production to final consumption.
  (Ms Nunn)  National food safety ought to be improved if we can all work to auditable standards. That would apply internationally. Retailers have worked out a technical standard for smaller manufacturers to work to so the inspectors can then be assessed to EN45004 standards. We are finding a great deal of interest throughout Europe in having the standard now translated into French, German and Spanish. The European Association of Retailers is having a presentation from DG24 on the idea of an international inspection regime on 31 March and we are all looking forward to seeing what ideas are coming out of Brussels on that.

  407.  Are you happy that the Food Standards Agency will be the judge and jury on the enforcement side?
  (Ms Nunn)  Ideally they should not but if you are working to auditable standards—and the better regulations task force unit have asked for comments on best performance indicators and we have had input to that—it is a big challenge. If you are doing it on a risk based approach, which is the best for public safety, how do you get that? It is perhaps facile to say that food poisoning is one. It is not just a question of the outputs; it is a question of the inputs and we are all exercised on that and will continue to see what we come up with.
  (Mr Longworth)  It is not inconceivable that meat hygiene could be transferred back to local authorities. It is not an impossible regime to envisage.

  408.  No, but it is not what we are being offered here.
  (Mr Longworth)  Of course not. If government thought there was an advantage in separating executive from policy making, that would be a solution.
  (Ms Stack)  Our view is that the Food Agency should be the monitors, not the enforcers. I had not thought about the Meat Hygiene Service until you put the question to Professor James yesterday.
  (Mr Longworth)  It is a valid point.
  (Ms Stack)  We do not go down the Tesco route of saying that the Agency should have any enforcement role in terms of retailing. You are right to ask me a question on the Meat Hygiene Service and I do not have a steer on it but it is a good question.

  409.  Do you think there is a danger that, if there should be another meat scare, the blame for it will whizz straight past the Meat Hygiene Service and be landed firmly at the door of the new Agency?
  (Mr Longworth)  The point you make about the separation between monitoring policy versus the legal enforcement regime is a valid one. My view on the Agency possibly taking the commanding heights, large businesses or whatever, or complex businesses, is simply a fallback position. It really depends on the performance of the regime going forward. It is very important that the home authority system is made to work. If it does not work, if it is not adequately funded and ring fenced and there is no mechanism for the systems health check on businesses to allow resources to be directed where there are problems, then—and only then—the Agency may well have to consider taking those roles upon itself, because otherwise the system will fail and that will serve nobody.

Chairman:  Can I thank you all very much indeed for the evidence that you have given us this morning. Hopefully before the end of the month you will be seeing our report in relation to this proposed legislation.

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