Examination of witnesses (Questions 660
THURSDAY 11 MARCH 1999
and RT HON
660. I do not want this to hog the debate
(Mr Rooker) You had better not name the school,
is all I can say.
661. It is a while ago and I did take it
up hot and strong, but it is important to get it clear because
if it had to be filtered through your Department and then your
Department spoke to the DfEE, then the question of public knowledge
about it gets a bit diluted because what your Department says
to Education is not public knowledge and so this is why I am rather
interested in making quite sure that they can have a direct relationship
(Tessa Jowell) Well, I can give you that assurance,
and I would also say that the second safeguard would be that the
Agency would have the power to publish the advice that it had
given, so I think that you are absolutely right to pursue this
point of consistency in openness and it is a very important part
of the Agency's function that they operate in that way.
662. Well, then if I can move on to another
clause, clause 21 talks about the power of the Secretary of State
where if he thinks there has been a serious failure by the Agency
to conform with clause 19, then he may give the Agency such directions
as he may consider appropriate. We are a little bit puzzled. We
think it would be handy if that was clarified a bit more. For
instance, could you suggest a possible scenario where such powers
might be invoked? They are quite strong powers, you see, and it
could be something which gets raised in relation to the independent
nature of the Agency, so on what kind of thing could the Agency
fall down which would leave the Secretary of State to invoke clause
(Tessa Jowell) I accept the point that these are
pretty substantial reserve powers by the Secretary of State and
I would just say two things. First of all, I would like to write
to the Committee setting out some examples which demonstrate the
exercise of these powers, and the reason why I ask to write rather
than give you examples now is that there is work currently under
way in the Department looking at this kind of scenario-planning
and I would rather give you the benefit of that than a more speculative
answer which I think would be less useful to you.
663. That is helpful. Just not to labour
it too long then, looking back at clause 19 which is referred
to in clause 21, subsection (2) is about taking into account the
nature and magnitude of risks and also the likely costs and benefits.
Those are things on which opinions might well differ and yet this
is where the Secretary of State could step in, so I think that
is where some alarm bells might ring unless there is further clarification.
In particular, thinking of costs and benefits, I wrote in my margin,
"Whose costs and whose benefits?" and where will the
Agency strike a balance seems to go to the heart of the Agency's
functions and I would not like to think that the Secretary of
State could come in and decide, for instance, the business costs
were more important than consumer benefits, so that is the sort
of thing which underpins this question in my mind.
(Mr Rooker) We have to read the two clauses, 21
and 19, in conjunction, but you have got to read them in conjunction
with 18 of course because 19 is triggered by what is published
in 18. Clause 18 will be put before the House about the objectives
of the Agency and its practices, the way it will work, and quite
clearly if it goes out of bounds, and it works both ways because,
on the one hand, the Secretary of State may say, "Do something
that I think you should be doing, but you are not doing",
and, on the other hand, he could say, "Don't do something",
so it works both ways, but Tessa is quite right. I know obviously
the Bill was born out of both departments, and MAFF kicked it
off, but the work that is going on in the departments about the
scenarios, we have emergency planning, we do do these things in
Whitehall, and we do not advertise the fact, but we do do our
own emergency planning, sit there and play the games and take
them very, very seriously and these things are going on now within
the Department of Health team to see whether the structures we
have got in the Bill will work in the sense of some of these problems
that you can think about.
664. We decided that we would not go through
it clause by clause; we are not a standing committee. We have
not done, but obviously we have to keep coming back to the actual
draft Bill, otherwise we will go roaming off too far from our
remit. Can I ask about one further thing then that you might be
able to supply us with along the same lines which is in relation
to clause 11, subsection (3) where it says, "The Secretary
of State may, for the purposes of safeguarding national security,
direct the Agency with any advice or information specified..."
et cetera, "which shall not be published, and I find that
a rather puzzling thing, national security in relation to food
standards or protection or safety or whatever, and I would like
an example either now or followed up when you write to us.
(Mr Rooker) Well, we have got two examples and
they are the ones I know and which come to mind because they are
the ones we deal with. They are nuclear safety and biological
terrorism. These are matters where they are national security
and food is connected. There is a division within the Joint Food
Standards and Safety Group that looks after what I call the "tick-tock"
sheep that are still around on the hills of Cumbria following
Chernobyl, and all that work goes on because it is essentially
part of the food chain. When issues arise with a nuclear accident
in respect of scenarios, and we do do the game plays on that and
look at it, that is where the issue is and it is not for something
that is embarrassing to the Government. National security is not
equated with government complacency or government embarrassment
in that sense, or it should not be and it is not under this Government
665. It has been known.
(Mr Rooker) It has been in the past, yes.
666. Public immunity is not something with
a tremendously good reputation. The nuclear one, I can see it
up to a point, but in a way if there was something to do with
nuclear reactions in sheep, I would rather like to know about
that, so I feel my security might be in conflict with your idea
of national security.
(Mr Rooker) I do not want to set a hare running
with the wrong analogy, but I was giving the example. We were
open about the sheep, by the way, and we pay the farmers for testing
the sheep each year. I am told there is a premium on the farms
where there are restrictions and I think there are ten or eleven
holdings in Cumbria still under restriction as a result of Chernobyl.
667. That is not secret?
(Mr Rooker) That is not secret, no. It is out
in the open, and so are the feral pigeons that got stuck up in
Sellafield. We told people about that, though we hoped they were
not eating wild pigeons anyway, but they were very radioactive
because they had been in places they should not have been. That
was not secret, but these are the two issues and I am sure that
the people sitting behind us can provide a note to the Committee
that does not cause a problem for anybody to explain that the
reasons for this being in the Bill are so that the Agency is covered
and we do not have to come back with primary legislation if such
a problem does arise.
668. Very finally then, going back a little
bit, but not wanting to go down the avenues that have already
been explored at all, except in relation to sewing, I am rather
keen on a stitch in time saves nine, and I just have been turning
over in my mind this £25 million and indeed your £130
million that you started with, and in comparison with the problems
and the costs when anything goes wrong, if places have got to
be shut down and all of that, is it not rather a small amount
anyway? I rather hoped that there would not just be a transfer
of money, but extra money to take into account the relative risks.
Is the Government doing enough about relative risks and benefits?
(Mr Rooker) I can provide you on a single sheet,
and it is a single sheet, but it is probably A3, with a breakdown
of, say, the £130 million, so that you get some rough divisions,
669. I am sure you are spending it admirably,
(Mr Rooker) There are no new resources. Without
the levy, there will not be the Agency anyway, so it is a question
of transferring over what work takes place into the Agency. The
future is a different issue. We have to think of how we set the
Agency up, but leaving that on one side, there is a huge programme,
for example, of things that have gone wrong, and, say, BSE is
not part of this. There are tens of millions of pounds being spent
on this side of research quite separate from the ring-fenced money
that will come out for food standards and safety. It is quite
separate and a huge amount of research is going on on that, mega-millions,
believe you me.
670. So if the Food Standards Agency felt
that there was some important issue that could not properly be
explored within this budget, presumably it could raise that with
the Secretary of State for Health, so he could raise it with the
Treasury so that they could do some risk-benefit analysis?
(Tessa Jowell) Absolutely and it might actually
be more appropriate that research that was needed in relation
to a particular issue was actually done by another research organisation
which, as Mrs Wise will be aware, is very much the pattern within
which research is conducted within the Department of Health. By
no means all the research that is used to develop policy is actually
funded directly under the auspices of the Department of Health.
671. I would like to move on to a number
of aspects of the Agency in the European and international dimensions.
Now, it appears that the Food Standards Agency officials will
often be speaking on behalf of the UK Government at European and
international level. Is that a correct understanding?
(Tessa Jowell) Yes.
672. Well, given that, if the Government
can ignore the advice that the Agency gives it on matters relating
to food safety which might on occasion form the basis of negotiations
in Brussels, let's say, would that not compromise the independence
of the Agency if it was having to represent a government which
had not taken its advice?
(Mr Rooker) I do not think so. Officials currently
negotiate in Brussels, having received instructions from ministers.
There are many occasions that I can recall in the last couple
of years when, because of the way the negotiations have gone in
Brussels, literally people are on the phone because different
compromises can be reached to see whether or not we either vote
for, against or abstain and the ministers take the decisions.
Our officials are doing the negotiation day in and day out. I
do not see a difficulty about that. I suppose an example is that
prior to the Government coming into office, negotiations were
taking place in Brussels, as I made clear, I think, a few days
ago at the PNQ, relating to the labelling of GM soya and maize.
I changed the instructions. Now, those instructions were carried
out. It would be the same situation. Nobody was arguing, "We
don't agree with what you are doing" and just because they
are in the new Agency, they will still be the main forum for representing
Britain in international negotiations. One final example I can
give you which is much more recent to show how the Joint Food
Group is, if you like, locked into this already, the other evening
I hosted a reception at Lancaster House for the delegates to the
Codex Committee on Fats and Oils which is hosted every two years
in this country. The secretariat provided for that and the staff
are all from the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group. The Committee
is being chaired this week by a MAFF official, and they are all
part of the group, so we are involved in that all the while with
international negotiations. At the end of the day of course the
decisions will be made here in the House of Commons or by ministers
in respect of international obligations. The Agency will be the
key provider of policy advice, research advice, and other matters
from within its expertise, which the Joint Food Standards and
Safety Group performs now at this present time. In the position
that you raised, it may be that the Agency has previously given
advice, for example, based on something that one of the advisory
committees has said about a product or a substance and the Government
takes a different view. Well, the benefit of the Agency is that
under those circumstances, everybody, everybody would know that
the Government has taken a different view. Today you do not know
673. Minister, forgive me, but the Agency
is supposed to be independent.
(Mr Rooker) Well
674. It is supposed to be an independent
agency that the public has confidence in because it is independent
(Mr Rooker) It is independent of the day-to-day
control of ministers. As I explained at our previous hearing,
its legal structure is as a non-ministerial department akin to
Customs & Excise, which is the example I gave. Nobody ever
accuses Customs & Excise of being a tool of the day-to-day
operation of Treasury ministers, but it has got to answer to Parliament
by ministers; it is a public body and there has got to be accountability.
You misuse the word "independent". It is independent
compared to what happens today, no doubt about that, because it
is under the day-to-day control of ministers giving decisions
on all kinds of issues. That would not be the case in future because
the commission, the board and the chair would have a totally different
relationship with the Secretary of State for Health and it would
be much more open and transparent. The idea that this is independent,
ie, a loose tie around the food industry, that clearly is not
the case from the guiding principles that are set out in the White
Paper and are converted into legislation, so it has to work within
the rules that the House will establish in due course, assuming
it passes the Bill.
675. So you are saying the Agency is not
independent, so the Agency comes up with some advice for the Government
based on research which we have just been talking about at length,
the Government rejects that advice, and you are saying then that
the Agency is then bound by the decision of the Government and
not by its own conclusions and it has then got to go and promote
the Government's policy rather than its own research findings
and its own advice?
(Mr Rooker) Well, you give an interesting example
and it would be interesting to see what happens in due course
with the nature of those who manage and govern the Agency. That
is why we need some real quality people and that is in no way
disparaging the people operating the Joint Food Standards and
Safety Group because the relationship between the Agency Chief
Executive, the board and the commission of the Agency with ministers
will be totally different from what the relationship is with the
senior civil servants who head up the Joint Food Standards and
Safety Group today, but yes, the point about it is that ministers
will be more accountable because the Agency advice will be in
the public domain. It is not the case today.
676. Let me move on to a slightly different
topic. I am not happy with the answer you have given me, but we
will move on to a slightly different topic, though very much related.
The Agency will be giving advice not only to ministers of the
UK Government, but will be giving advice to ministers in Scotland
and Northern Ireland who might actually take a different view
from the view in London. As a scenario, let us say that the Consumer
Affairs Council in Brussels was deciding whether or not unpasteurised
milk should be banned across the European Union, and I do not
know what that would do for the French cheese industry, but, nonetheless,
let us use that as a scenario. In Scotland it is banned and in
England and Wales it is not. Who are they representing?
(Mr Rooker) Funnily enough, I thought that might
get raised again, but you raise an interesting example because
most of our food law, food policy is governed by membership of
the European Union. Now, food safety and food standards is a devolved
issue for the Scottish Parliament and we are setting up a UK Agency
at a very delicate time obviously during the course of elections
and hence we have only got draft clauses in for that and we have
made that clear, that we shall come back in due course. However,
whilst there can be differences, as indeed there are today, as
we freely admit, between Scotland and England in some respects,
if the European Union makes a decision and it is subject to qualified
majority voting and a decision is taken that the UK Government,
let us say, is against, because that is the scenario you are promoting,
that is the law. Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom,
it is still a member of the European Union, so that becomes the
law. The decision the European Union took last September over
the labelling of GMOs is already the law of the land, but the
fact is that we cannot enforce it because we have no SI for penalties
and offences which we will have before the end of the month. Scotland
and the devolved governments cannot opt out of European Union
decisions and in the example which you give, if that were to pass,
and there is no proposal for that, that would be a European Union-wide
legal requirement which you could not opt out of just because
you were a devolved region of a unitary state.
677. I am not suggesting you could opt out
of it, but in arriving at that decision, whether it be by qualified
majority or an absolute majority, whose case are they representing?
Are they representing Scotland's case or are they representing
England and Wales's case?
(Mr Rooker) In the first case that you give I
suspect they will put both sides of the argument.
678. Which side are they going to vote on
because at the end of the day it comes down to a vote.
(Mr Rooker) Yes, but it will the UK Government
Minister who is there representing the United Kingdom who will
get to sign the vote. The vote will carry, by the way, following
collective decisions in Whitehall. This is not something where
one votes on a hunch. We are not acting as individuals. You appreciate
that. We are acting after having discussions with colleagues in
Government. Generally speaking, we do not vote, we try and get
a consensus. There are many issues currently where I have discussions
with Scottish colleagues simply because the nature is different.
Food and health is split between two Ministers. I discuss both
with Sam Galbraith and Lord Sewel because one has health and the
other has agricultural responsibilities and yet they both at times
come together in the areas that I touch on. That will be a collective
decision in Whitehall of the United Kingdom Government. The United
Kingdom is a member of the European Union, not Scotland, Wales
and Northern Ireland.
679. I would like to come round to the other
side of this coin now and take the Single Market in the European
Union and maybe even slightly wider than that, the provisions
of the World Trade Organisation, but let us just deal with the
Single Market provisions. The Food Standards Agency is going to
have certain powers, advisory or otherwise, with regard to the
Meat Hygiene Service with regard to food production and with regard
to food retailing. If you take food production the provisions
of the Foods Standards Agency on food production could be much
more stringent than those that obtain elsewhere in the European
Union. Do you not see a conflict here in that British food manufacturers
may find that the provisions of the Food Standards Agency are
that much more onerous on them than they are on their Continental
competitors? There will be nothing that the Food Standards Agency
can do to control the quality or standards of food coming into
the UK as long as they meet the basic provisions agreed out in
(Mr Rooker) I have to say the premise of your
question is that everybody else has lesser quality and lesser
standards than us and that would not wear well across the European