Examination of Witnesses (Questions 410
TUESDAY 9 MARCH 1999
410. Good morning. Could I welcome you to
the Committee, Mr Robertson? I am sure you are aware that we are
in the position of taking evidence in a very short period of time
but I wonder if I could ask you first of all, for the record,
to announce yourself?
(Mr Robertson) Thank you. Please excuse my broken
hearing aid. I have a hearing problem and only one ear that works.
If I flip briefly through the proposals, one that does concern
us is we should maybe refer to the European Union on occasion
because much of this is also covered by European legislation and
proposals. One of the first things that worries me on page six,
as a businessman, is the cost of the initial set-up. I believe
a new building is proposed and we would like to suggest that we
look at some of the existing buildings such as the old Ministry
of Agriculture, which is very convenient for here. I am sure we
know that something like £1 million was spent moving to the
new Ministry offices and we now have some very good buildings
left that perhaps the Agency should consider.
Chairman: We have
not gone into detail yet about that. What we are trying to do
here is to look at the draft Bill as it stands. Obviously, your
position in the Federation of Small Businesses is that you are
quite interested in how some of the issues, particularly two of
them, do affect small businesses in this country. I wonder if
I could ask Martin Smyth to open up one of the areas that we would
like to question you on this morning?
411. You will be aware that in emphasising
the role of the FSA in the area of food safety rather than nutrition
it has raised problems in some minds. Do you believe that the
government has diluted the possible effectiveness of the FSA by
making that emphasis?
(Mr Robertson) No, not particularly. One thing
that concerns me a great deal is the intrusion into industry,
particular for farmers who have never had this before. I think
it may affect them seriously. We are getting a very high level
of inspection. Okay, it is to assure the consumer of food safety,
but I think this is much more than will happen in the rest of
Europe. We are a little worried about gold plating, particularly
in this context. Speaking for small farmers, I am very worried
about the level of farmer suicides at the moment. It is approximately
two a week. We have a study from the University of Edinburgh that
puts this down to government legislation as the first reason.
There is a very complex raft of legislation involved in this Agency
which I think will come down very heavily on farming, amongst
other industries. I am obviously more concerned with farming than
the other industries in this context.
412. It is interesting in that context that
the Irish Food Agency which has been set up has not had anybody
from the food industry on it. They think that is marvellous, bearing
in mind that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland depend
a large amount on their agricultural industry. Have you had any
reactions at that level?
(Mr Robertson) I have not had any particular Irish
response but in talking about the evidence of reasons for farm
suicides I am talking about a Scottish paper produced by Professor
Ian Deerie of the University of Edinburgh.
413. I thought it was your emphasis on the
European model and that the Republic of Ireland as a separate
entity within Europe might have been in your mind as well.
(Mr Robertson) Yes. I am also relating to larger
farming groups such as the French, who I do not think will perhaps
adopt the same approach as we will.
414. You are not suggesting that, because
countries in Europe have lower standards, we should be lowering
ours to meet their standards or, as we are aware in the Italian
aspect of European legislation, they legislate but do not enforce.
(Mr Robertson) I think I am more concerned that
we should raise our standards to the effect that we disadvantage
British farmers competitively. This is very important. We have
to bear in mind the competition provisions of the Treaty of Rome
and not make our farmers in such a bad position that they cannot
415. Is there any possibility that, when
you speak of the problems in Scotland, it is because they have
no balanced nutrition and therefore they are not able to face
the pressures upon them?
(Mr Robertson) Could you repeat that?
416. You are talking about the suicide rate
(Mr Robertson) No; I am talking about the United
417. All right; say the United Kingdom as
a whole. Could it be that farmers maybe are not getting enough
advice on nutritional values and therefore they are not equipped
to deal with these added pressures?
(Mr Robertson) I suppose it is an argument.
418. One of the guiding principles of the
proposed Food Standards Agency is that it re-establishes public
confidence in our food chain. Would it not be to the benefit of
farmers if that happened, in view of the reaction we have had
to food chain issues like BSE and its reaction to your members?
(Mr Robertson) I think it would if it was not
so costly to them. We have to recognise that there are many farm
assurance schemes which are also addressing that problem at the
moment in other products. These have a mixed reception, mainly
again because I think they are not applicable in the rest of Europe.
We should ask ourselves perhaps why we are so concerned about
this particular aspect. We know we had BSE but that was unique.
That had to be approached in a totally separate way. We wonder
why we are so concerned whereas no one else in Europe seems to
be. Is this particularly a British problem? Should we not be addressing
it a little less?
419. As far as the regimes to rid our livestock
of BSE, they are now in place and would not be affected by this
proposed Agency. I wonder if you think there is any cost, other
than a possibly levy on retail outlets, that would affect farmers
and small businesses particularly that you represent? Is there
a likelihood that any new charges for the Food Standards Agency
would affect the people that you represent?
(Mr Robertson) Obviously, it will affect all food
businesses so far as the cost is concerned. In this context, if
there is to be a charge, it should be dependent on size. We recognise
it will cost more to implement but we believe fairness is more
important in that context. Small businesses may cost more to inspect
but they are on a much slower turnover so we are concerned on
that particular aspect.