Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560 - 568)

WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999

MR JOHN WOOD, MR NEVILLE CRADDOCK and MRS VALERIE SAINT

  560.  That is very important. You are now saying quite categorically that you do not support the levy at all?
  (Mr Wood)  Yes, and we said that in response to the White Paper.

  561.  So just to clarify that, who do you think should be paying for the Food Standards Agency?
  (Mr Wood)  The Treasury through general taxation.

Chairman

  562.  Could I ask a rider to that. We were told in evidence given by Freda Stack of the Co-operative Union that the effect of clause 23 of the Bill presented the FSA with a blank cheque signed by the United Kingdom food retailers. Do you share these concerns?
  (Mr Wood)  Yes, we do. In fact, the way that the Bill is drafted—and I appreciate it just enabling primary legislation—there would be the power in the Act to impose a tax on any part of the food chain at any point in the future. At the moment we have the assurances of the Food Safety Ministers that it will be to fund the start-up costs, roughly £50 million for each of the first three years, and that is the content of the separate consultation document on funding, but given the way the Bill is drafted I do not think anyone can take comfort from that statement.

Ms Keeble

  563.  I wonder if you could fill out a bit more the very interesting comments you made about concordats in your written evidence. You said that they should be appropriate and publicly available. To what extent do you think the information in them should be made public and do you think there are any other factors which should really come into the way it should operate?
  (Mr Wood)  I think the way in which the Bill is drafted, as I have implied, Chairman, this is primary legislation, there will then have to be secondary legislation and now there are to be concordats. Having looked at the scope of these concordats, they do seem to be reasonably comprehensive but we do feel that there should be an opportunity for interested parties to feed views in in the preparation of these concordats, and we certainly think they should be published documents at the end of that period. There are other aspects which the concordats might usefully cover. One, of course, is how the Agency will handle confidential information and my colleagues would be happy to address that issue if you would be interested in our views.

Ms Keeble:  That would be helpful. I would be extremely interested to know what the civil servants think and if there are differences between what is being proposed and——

Chairman

  564.  As I understand it, and perhaps Jill could tell us, the concordats will be published but the debate is whether or not there will be any public consultation on them. Is that correct?
  (Ms Wordley)  Yes, that is correct.

Ms Keeble

  565.  I understood from what you said previously that they would be published but that it would be decided by somebody, and I was not quite clear who, as to how much of them should be published and it might be that there is some information withheld?
  (Ms Wordley)  I am sorry, perhaps I was not clear. What I meant to say was that the intention was not that they would be published in draft for consultation but that when the concordats are finalised—and, of course, it is worth making the point that concordats like this can be subject to regular review, so the first version that is published does not necessarily have to hold for all time—it is the final version of the agreed concordat that will be published, but I suggested yesterday that there might need to be some discussion about the sort of principles of what needed to go in the concordats as the drafting was going on.

Ms Keeble

  566.  It would be helpful to have amplification in particular about what information is deemed to be commercially confidential or something because obviously that might be right in the public interest and it might be information we would like to know about our food and where it came from.
  (Mr Craddock)  I think there are perhaps two issues of some concern to the Federation in terms of confidentiality. There is the confidentiality relating to some data which the industry may have generated, and we have heard about surveillance programmes; there are concerns about whether veterinary medicines, pesticides, should be inside or outside the Agency. It is sometimes forgotten that the industry itself does a tremendous amount of its own internal screening of its raw materials, its own research programmes and looking at matters of the broadest concern, and it is not at all uncommon for the industry itself to be in a position to flag up potential areas of interest well ahead of those being picked up by the more normal, shall we say, official, in the sense of government, channels. But clearly in the spirit of openness, there is plenty of evidence to show that the industry in the past has gone forward and highlighted to the relevant authorities where they believe there may be a developing problem. Clearly one of the issues touched on earlier, is the way in which the Agency will convey information to the public, I think one of the guiding principles possibly even in the Bill is that it must not cause undue scares, to paraphrase it; it must be responsible in what it publishes. Certainly when it comes to an exchange of sensitive data of a toxicological, or whatever it may be, nature then some degree of safeguard would be sought. There are other areas, of course, where you may be talking of investment plans and you have the normal financial elements to consider. But the other issue which we would like considered in further detail—I think it is somewhere around Clause 13 or 14—is where individuals acting on behalf of the Agency are entitled to go into premises, not only food factories and food premises but also local authority premises, to undertake what I think are called "observations". It does seem that there is a weakness there whereby they may well be able to pick up other information which is not in any shape or form relevant to the activity which they are investigating or even concerned with, but there do not appear to be the safeguards in the Bill which pertain already for existing controls on the disclosure of information by current enforcement officers. It is probably easier to give an example to demonstrate the sort of thing I am thinking of, you walk around the factory, it is very easy to see that a business is perhaps doing business for another party which has absolutely nothing to do with food safety. Some of the retail customers of ours like to keep their sources of certain products confidential, because there is a commercial incentive to do so, and it has nothing to do with safety, and I do not think it is really in the public interest to know that a particular product comes from Factory A or Factory B.

  567.  I would like to come back to this but in view of the time it may be something we could discuss with the civil servants later.
  (Mr Craddock)  I think it is Clause 13, for clarification.

Chairman

  568.  Thank you very much. Could I thank you for coming along this afternoon to give evidence. We still have another session of witnesses but thank you very much indeed.
  (Mr Wood)  Thank you very much.


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 12 April 1999