Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460 - 469)



  460.  You are right, it cannot cure poverty, but I think it was Engels (not a person we often talk about these days) who wrote about the fact that the market will always try and sell the shoddiest goods that the market will accept, and what you seem to be saying to me is, "That is it. That is all we can do about it. We can label goods and maybe people will accept them or they will not accept them but we cannot stop them being sold to them"?
  (Ms McKechnie)  Could I come back on the issue of what is happening in schools because we do have some strong views about that and I would have thought the Agency could perfectly appropriately have a look at the schools policy in terms of the food and particularly the new sponsors that are being allowed into schools, who are trying to use branding. There are some very responsible companies who over the years have done very good work in putting charitable or whatever resources into schools. That work is now being undermined by the rather more aggressive approach of some food companies, particularly American food companies, who are being allowed access to our children. It may well be that we will have a real argument between the Agency and the Department for Education in terms of the "tuck shop" syndrome, and if sweets, etc. are not available to children, you have a better chance of getting them to eat the things that are healthy, but any of you who have had to try and ration young children's sweet allocations, etc. and try to make them eat healthy things will know that this is a dialogue that goes on generation after generation and it is not an easy one to solve.

Audrey Wise

  461.  First of all, following directly on that last thing, it has been made clear to this Committee that the Food Standards Agency will have relationships with whichever departments it wishes to, including the Department for Education, and whilst I accept what you say about poverty, and I am certainly not in the business of blaming the victim, I do think that there are additional factors in that people now find it quite hard, for a number of reasons, to pass on the sort of culinary expertise that was passed on, for instance, to me, and the issue about children seems to me to be partly one of providing them with the right sort of experiences. You mentioned consumer education in the National Curriculum. I am not sure what you mean by that. How would you react to a situation where I went into a secondary school some time ago and found that they had a healthy lunch once a week for the first years and that sounds to make comments on the rest of the school meals for the rest of the school, but the interesting thing, especially in the light of what you are saying, was that the rest of the school was passionately anxious to have this healthy meal as well and the first years wanted it every day. So it is perhaps a question of how it is gone about. Do you think if we can give our children direct experience and knowledge about how to prepare food, that would be the best sort of consumer education in the food area?
  (Ms McKechnie)  Absolutely, but I think we under-estimate the amount of knowledge that has been got through to the public about what is healthy and unhealthy. Let me reply by a story. I got my "come-uppance" because I once did a programme for the Radio 4 Food Programme—this was in my previous job—and I was asked to interview some homeless people about what they were going to cook for their Christmas, and it was more, "How do you cook if you are in a bed-sit?" or "How do you cook if you are on the street? What do you eat and why do you eat unhealthily?" I do not know if I was just unlucky but I got three children to interview at Centre Point, one who knew how to make a baked alaska—not necessarily the most nutritious of food but certainly requiring a high level of culinary expertise—another one who clearly understood about nutrition and a young woman who again knew exactly what she was doing wrong and simply ate chocolate and sandwiches on the street because there were no other facilities. They have got the message; they have to be able to have the means to get on with it, and remember, the issue of healthy children is not just one of nutrition. It is also very much linked to exercise and the fact that we are such sedentary human beings now and we must not narrow the whole thing about healthy lifestyles just down to food, however important a part it is.

  462.  What you are suggesting seems to me to imply that the Agency will also have to relate to other departments, such as the Department of Social Security and the Department for Education and Employment, in relation to issues such as minimum wage and benefits level because that is very much related to what you are saying. May I turn to some very precise words in the actual draft legislation. In your evidence you emphasise a great deal openness, transparency and publication. Have you noticed that in clauses 11, 13, 14 and 27—I will tell you what it is, you need not hastily look for it—and there may be others that I have not noticed, there is a form of words occurs which is this: "In deciding whether to publish any information under this section, the Agency: (a) must take account of any considerations of confidentiality attaching to that information, and (b) may publish the information if it appears to the Agency to be in the public interest to do so." "Must take account of any confidentiality". It does not say who decides what is confidential. "Must take account of any considerations of confidentiality" but "may publish". That occurs four times. Two of the clauses say "shall take account" rather than "must" but it is exactly the same. Do you have any views about whether that is satisfactory terminology?
  (Ms McKechnie)  No, I do not think it is satisfactory and we need to sort out confidentiality that is there and is really required from confidentiality that is just actually about withholding information, but the NCC has done some detailed work on that. May I make a general point, though, about the publication of scientific evidence and the openness of committees. The history of advisory committees in this country has been that we have had committees of scientists, not necessarily scientific committees. That may be a rather obscure point but it is the idea that scientists get together and generally come out with proper advice. There are a whole lot of stages that you now have to separate out between scientific advice when it is available, at what point it starts, judgement in terms of what you are saying about that scientific advice, point of publication, because, remember, all scientific evidence ought to be peer-reviewed and checked before it gets sent to the public arena, and all major scientific journals require sole publication rights and there are some very difficult issues at the point at which you make the information public. Our committees have always in the past, whether it is novel foods, whether it is the food advisory committee, whether it is COMA, gone down the route of complete secrecy, not just in terms of protecting information that should be truly commercially confident but all information. That is why we have written about 50 pages there on how that needs to work because it is absolutely fundamental to get that new culture into the Agency, but I will pass to the NCC on the commercial issue, and if we had a Freedom of Information Act you would not have to ask me this question.

  463.  But we have not.
  (Ms McKechnie)  But we have not, yet.
  (Ms Phillips)  There are a number of points about openness and we very much welcome the fact in clause 18(2)(c) that the Agency will have to be very open about the decisions it makes and the background to those decisions, but it is not clear from the Bill what kinds of decisions those will actually be. I think we would like to see more clarification of that, whether it would cover the advisory committees, whether it will just be the board of Agency members or how far that will go. There is also another general point about openness which relates to clause 11 and the giving of advice, where the legislation actually says that the Agency may arrange for advice or information to be published. We feel that does not go far enough because there ought to be a presumption of openness there, rather than that they feel they actually want to publish it, that actually there should be a presumption, unless there is a very good reason why they should not publish it. Then in terms of the commercial confidentiality that you were talking about, again I think we would want to be sure that there ought to be very good reasons for not publishing the information and that the people providing the information should actually prove that it will cause them substantial harm, which is in line with the Freedom of Information White Paper, "Your Right to Know". I would also like, in this context, to refer the Committee to the powers of the Secretary of State, which are in clause 21, where the Secretary of State can give directions to the Agency if it breaches various things and it relates to clause 19 in the Bill, that if it does not fulfil its statement of objectives and practices, or if it does not take decisions on the basis of risks or costs and benefits and so on, the Secretary of State will have powers to take action or issue directions to the Agency. I think those sorts of powers and how they are used are really quite crucial and if the Secretary of State is heavyhanded in using those powers it could threaten the independence of the Agency. It seems that there will be times when the Agency will say things that the government ministers will not like and it will be uncomfortable for them. So we want to be sure that those directions are going to be used as a last resort maybe and we understand that the Agency needs to have some route of accountability, but we want to be sure that we have some sort of assurances that that power will be used very carefully and that also the Secretary of State should be required to publish the reasons why he uses those powers. We think that is very important so that people understand why the Secretary of State will come in and use those powers.


  464.  Could I move you on quickly into another area in the last few minutes. This is the issue of the levy. We are in theory not taking evidence on the levy but feel that we have to. I just wondered if I could ask you very briefly, do you think it is a threat to consumers, as it is currently perceived it will be a flat rate levy on most retail food outlets?
  (Ms McKechnie)  I have great sympathy for the argument, why should a little corner shop be charged the same as a superstore with 10,000 square feet or 20,000 square feet of space. However, I think you need to balance that with ease of collection and, quite frankly, I think there are other people who will have a view on that. I have no concern about distorting the independents or all these other slightly spurious arguments that have come up from the industry to say we do not want to have a charge. What I am concerned about is the fact that the opportunity was not taken to use the licensing mechanism as a way of raising money. It seems to me that anybody who wants to purvey food to the public, where obviously if the hygiene standards and all kinds of other standards are not at a sufficient level it could cause severe illness, then there is a reasonable requirement for the premises and the facilities or whatever to meet certain standards and we had expected the income that was generated through licensing to feed back into the local authorities to allow them to put more inspectors on the ground, but I am sure you will be taking evidence from LACOTS and the various local authority people in terms of the problems of actually inspecting and the cost of inspection and the limitations of their budgets.
  (Ms Sheppard)  Unfortunately, because of the way the government are proposing this levy to work, it will be seen as a tax and actually we did not want a tax. What we wanted was a system of licensing fees which were in return for inspection services because we thought this would be the best way to try and raise hygiene standards across the food chain. There is an issue about whether the levy should be graduated according to the size and scale of the operation. That is one issue but the other issue is, should it be loaded at one particular end of the food chain. It seems to be loaded at catering and retailing outlets. Of course, that is sensible to do if you think it is a tax but if you do not want it to be a tax but want it to be a licensing fee, then you would naturally argue that it be transferred right across the chain.

  465.  Does the National Consumer Council think the same?
  (Ms Phillips)  Very similar, in that we are not so concerned about the independence issue that some organisations have been concerned about. Basically, we know that there are other regulators that raise money from the industry they regulate so we do not have a particular problem with that and we do not feel that it will necessarily affect the independence of the Agency. Likewise, we do not feel that the amount of money that is being collected is necessarily going to be a significant burden. If the £50 million were spread across all the households of the United Kingdom it is 4p per week and we do not feel that is a huge sum. On the other hand, we would prefer that the start-up costs were paid for by the taxpayer.

  466.  Thank you for that. You have settled my family feud that I have at the moment. My younger brother runs a traditional butcher's shop and will have to pay this levy if it comes through in the way it is now. My elder brother runs a plumbing and central heating business and he has to have a day off every year at his cost and pay his man who does not go to work and then he goes for a CORGI test, which costs him £160 plus his day off, and nobody ever asks to see his CORGI card that he carries around and there is a real feud in the Barron family.
  (Ms McKechnie)  We have certain reservations about CORGI, if you would like to have another inquiry into that.

  467.  Could I ask one thing which relates to the question of enforcement that you have touched on. As I understand the current system, enforcement is a quantitative thing in terms of the number of visits to premises where there is a risk and it is a table of risk, as I understand it, A to E, A being the highest risk area of either food preparation or a retail outlet. At the moment the situation is that the test that has to be made as of April of this year is the number of visits within those different categories. Do you think it would be a good idea from the consumers' point of view if they were looking at actually bringing different premises down the categories of risk and that ought to be something so that we have a qualitative way of enforcement as opposed to just a quantitative one, as I understand the thing is at the moment?
  (Ms McKechnie)  I think one of the things that this Agency ought to look at is how you set your priorities for inspection, what are the key criteria for saying those are the premises where there is going to be the highest risk and those are the premises with the lowest risk. I also think that premises that are clearly meeting very high standards can then drop down in terms of frequency. Risk management is another whole area and we have not been very good at it, I do not think, in terms of using our resources. I think the Agency should look at the points of the food chain at which there is greatest potential to do harm and there is quite an argument about that. If you take the issue of E. Coli, the main reason for E. Coli is dirty animals and faeces and urine from animals getting into the food chain. On the other hand, if you look at what happened in Mr Barr's shop in Glasgow it was the cross-contamination. We are waiting for this report on intestinal disease from the Department of Health. I do not know whether it will show this but we do not actually have a very clear picture at what point in the food chain we need to concentrate most resources to reduce the level of poisoning, if we look at that aspect. So there is an awful lot of work for the Agency to do in that area and I think that it will probably have to conduct a bit of research on which to base its risk management strategy and setting of priorities.

Mr Brand

  468.  From the answers you have just given, you are clearly happy with an enforcement role for the Agency rather than a standard-setting and auditing role. There has been concern expressed about the dual function, for instance, with the Meat Hygiene Service being accountable to the Agency. It is both setting the standards and also imposing them and then judging on the outcomes?
  (Ms McKechnie)  My experience of that is primarily with the Health and Safety Commission, and I think that in terms of the regulatory culture and the effectiveness, i.e. pounds in for output, you have a model there that is workable. The only instance where there is a duality that arises is where, perhaps in the initial investigation of something, whether it is a rail accident or an occupational Flixborough-type accident or something else, the inspection function may be something that needs to be looked at. In those instances I think you go down the route of having a public inquiry or a sideways inquiry if you think your regulatory approach might be at the root of the problem. But I think all the evidence we have is that the risk enforcement, risk management, risk priority-setting, risk assessment, is part of a whole continuous loop and is the way forward because it stops you making what could be silly decisions.

  469.  So would you go as far as to make the local government inspection services accountable to the Food Standards Agency?
  (Ms McKechnie)  I go back to the point I made at the beginning. I think the Agency agreement system works well. In fact, there is a similar agency agreement with the Health and Safety Executive in some areas of inspecting health and safety at work, and it does seem to work well. What we have said is that the Agency has to have the residual powers to go back to the minister if it is not working for whatever reason and, therefore, I would like to see the person in charge of the Agency doing annual reviews in terms of the performance of certain kinds of inspectorates and standard-setting within value-for-money in local government and feeding into the Audit Commission. These are things that I think anybody sensible in charge of this Agency would start to set out, and certainly I would not only put out for consultation my philosophy and how I am going to approach all of this but make public my annual work programme and the criteria by which I am going to be judged successful. We are all into managing resources in that way, and I think the Agency should approach it in that fashion, but I do not fear that one.

Chairman:  Could I thank you all very much indeed for coming along this morning to give evidence. Hopefully, some of your thoughts and evidence will be reflected in the report, which should be out by the end of the month. Thank you.

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