Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 720 - 739)



  720.  This is just the point that I think Stephen was getting at. One of the very last witnesses we had yesterday was a very small organisation producing the very best beef from very low intensity cattle in a very green part of the South West of England. It was such a low throughput that I think it took an hour and a half to dress one bullock.
  (Tessa Jowell)  He knew each cow by name.

  721.  Exactly. That is what everyone would like. Apparently the stuff tastes absolutely marvellous. He has an extremely high score on all the hygiene points but if this Agency is too prescriptive that sort of small outfit will be rubbed out because they simply will not be able to afford the charges unless there is some flexibility built into the Bill to allow different levels of enforcement for different levels of production.
  (Mr Rooker)  With respect, that is a totally separate issue to the consideration of setting up a Food Standards Agency whether it has got the Meat Hygiene Service in it or not. The issue of the Meat Hygiene Service is we are required by European Union Directives for it to recover its inspection costs in the abattoir. The issue of the Meat Hygiene Service is that we are required by European Union Directives for it to recover its inspection costs in the abattoir. We have got the SRM controls which the Government has decided the taxpayer has paid for for long enough. That is our view. I said today in the House that we have not got the final figures and ministers have not made the final decisions. The questions Owen is asking are not really proper for the setting up of the Food Standards Agency. They are proper questions—I am not denying that and I am in no way being critical—but it is not the role of the Agency, as I said before, to snuff out small firms, innovators, niche markets.

  722.  Could we have that in the Bill?
  (Mr Rooker)  You have to take my word for it. I do not think the parliamentary draftsman will accept my English and terminology as suitable for the Bill. Niche markets will, we trust, prevail while there is a market for the produce. It is not our job to dictate taste and price. I was reading yesterday in the volume of press cuttings we get into MAFF each day—and I will not name the details because I think it would be unfair—that there are people in London paying £18 for a chicken and £49.16 for two kilograms of fillet beef. Those are prices that people are paying. They are prices my constituents do not recognise but there is a niche market there. Someone is prepared to pay for what someone is prepared to produce. That is not the generality. That is a question of individual choice and I do not seek to snuff that out in any way, shape or form.


  723.  Thank you for that clarification, Minister. Can I ask you one last question on structures. It was put to us by the Consumers' Association the reason that the PSD, VMD and COMA——
  (Mr Rooker)  Not true.

  724.  The reason they have been put not under the FSA's total control, and I emphasise that, is because there has been a turf war in Whitehall between your two Departments.
  (Mr Rooker)  With respect, my good friends in the Consumers' Association pepper every other paragraph turf war. You can believe me or believe me not, Tessa will confirm it and you can take independent evidence from other Ministers, over the setting up and the collaborative work in the last two years between the MAFF and the Department of Health there has not been a single incident of what is a turf war, a "This is mine and I am not letting it go" type of approach. The reason we took that decision to start with, the four Ministers ourselves and our bosses, was because if it was seen that we were divided there was no way at all that the staff in our two Departments would be able to work together on what is a very important project and there have been no signs of a turf war and that is the advice, I would add, of some of the senior people who have been around Whitehall a lot longer than you and I have been in the House. It is simply not true there have been turf wars. There have been discussions and I freely admit we had more debate about veterinary products and pesticides, about in or out, than we ever did about nutrition because we did the split on nutrition, consulted on it and were satisfied. There has not been a turf war. I have read the notes from the evidence of the Consumers' Association and that just is not so. Please believe me.
  (Tessa Jowell)  Can I just confirm every word of that. When you began that question in referring to a turf war between two departments I was wondering to which departments you were referring. There has not been any difference of view about any aspect of departmental responsibility or responsibility for the Agency between our two Departments over the now nearly 18 months that we have been preparing these proposals for legislation.

  725.  Maybe it was the Soil Association!
  (Mr Rooker)  It was the Consumers' Association.

Chairman:  The Soil Association have a lot to do with turf, I would have thought!

Ms Keeble

  726.  I wish to cover two areas and the first one is concordats. This has arisen in some of the sessions after you last came. They are not mentioned on the face of the Bill but they are in the consultation document in paragraph 22. I wanted to know a bit about how they are going to run. They could lead to quite substantial criticisms of the FSA depending how it happens. Who is actually going to be primarily responsible for drawing up the concordats?
  (Mr Rooker)  I do not think I am fully qualified to answer that at the present time but this has been drawn up across Whitehall, not just our two departments, do not forget. There is the Department of Wales and the Northern Ireland Office and The Scottish Office and our two Departments who have been drawing up working arrangements. We are going through the process of electing a Scottish Parliament. I think concordats have been drawn up for devolution itself if I am not much mistaken as to how we shall have good quality working relations between London and Edinburgh and Cardiff. I am not in a position to give any more detail. It may be that Tessa can. We have not got any drafts of them. It is probably too early at the moment.

  727.  What I am concerned about is the process. I can appreciate it is too early to have drafts of them, but as I understand it from section 7 basically the administrative concordats involve all the different stakeholders in the process. Will that include the private sector or not?
  (Mr Rooker)  No.

  728.  Will there be public consultation about them?
  (Mr Rooker)  No.

  729.  What will happen if the concordats are seen not to work properly?
  (Mr Rooker)  There will be a bit of a row within Whitehall and they will be changed.

  730.  Changed internally.
  (Mr Rooker)  If there is a failure of a concordat and they are shown not to work then there would be discussions to get it changed. It is in everybody's interests that the conduct of policy goes with as few hitches as possible. We are in new territory by the way with devolution. We happen to be the vanguard of a Bill for a United Kingdom Agency that is going to go through the House hopefully at the same time as the parliaments are being set up. We have to be careful with our language, as it were, because it is devolved issue which makes it even more complicated. This has added to the complication and we freely admitted in the notes on clauses that the devolution clause, if I can put it that way, is very much a draft and we will be coming back in due course with much more refinement on that and we will then be in a position to explain all the work that has been going on with the drawing up of concordats.

  731.  We have been told several things about the whole issue of publishing them. One is that they will be published. One is that they will be published but the only bits that will be published will be bits that the person briefing us from the Civil Service said the public will need to know. The Food and Drink Federation yesterday said they would not be published if they included anything that was commercially sensitive. What is actually going to happen about publishing them?
  (Mr Rooker)  Tessa is getting extra info. You raise the issue of commercial confidence. The concordats are basically there for the conduct and administration of public affairs. To the best of my knowledge they will not involve who says and who does what about the private sector. It is the way the Government conducts itself Ministry to Ministry in coming to United Kingdom type decisions that allow choice within a devolved arrangement.

  732.  Can I give an example of what I am concerned about. There is so little information here that it might be that I am barking up completely the wrong tree, in which case say. Supposing there is a concordat which says how the different departments should manage, for example, some kind of process that involves a risk to public health and supposing it says how the information should go from the FSA back to the Ministry and be managed down through the local authorities including providing public information. Supposing there is an issue about the safety of beef and whether or not there is a link to human health. It is all contained within Whitehall and the decision is that information should not going to the public about it. Are we looking at the type of procedural scenarios which could lead to the sort of problems we experienced over the BSE crisis? I do not ask that to pose criticisms. I ask that because I think there are procedural issues about what happens and how it is then made public. It is real issues about public confidence and their feeling, as the Consumers' Association reminded us, that politicians tend to cosy up.
  (Mr Rooker)  Before Tessa comes in, the idea behind the concordats is that they are not there as an excuse to keep things secret. That is not their function. They are not an escape clause to negate the openness and transparency of the operation. They are there so that inside Government, between agencies, between ministries, between territorial ministries, there is a set of rules about how you work together to arrive at solutions to problems, who takes the lead on which, the swapping over of budgets and who pays for what if there is a lead on things. You raised the issue of food safety and your example was some problem on beef, I do not think this is an issue where the concordats come into play. I do not think that is the function of the concordats.

  733.  It says here on page seven: "These concordats will, for example, cover such matters as the need for timely provision of information and consultation,..." If that is an issue about public information and if it is about at what point do you call a food problem a food problem and at what time do you blow the whistle on BSE, I think there is a real public interest in how these are constructed. The other issue is when will we know? I can understand that it might be very early but certainly if I was on the Standing Committee for this Bill I would want to know exactly how these concordats are going to be put together, what they are going to cover, in what form they are going to be circulated, who is going to get to see them, who is going to be consulted, etc., etc., etc. I do not see that here.
  (Tessa Jowell)  Can I say two things on this. First of all, as the draft Bill makes clear, the concordats are intended to set out the administrative arrangements in order to ensure that the functions of the Agency and the connections with other aspects of Whitehall are properly made and that information flows freely. I just want to underline what Jeff has said, that there is absolutely no basis for any claim that those concordats will in any way sabotage the commitment to openness that we have made about the Agency. I think you are right that when the Bill comes to Standing Committee it is part of proper scrutiny that the Standing Committee is absolutely clear about the way in which the concordats will be constructed and the way in which the information will then be disseminated. It is very important that in doing that Members of the Committee are clear that there is absolutely no intention, nor will there be any practice, that the concordats are used to conceal information from anybody who has a proper need for it.

  734.  Can I just come back to this because at present what we are looking at in the Bill is the structures and the procedures. The policy issues and things like that personally I think are for another time and another place to a certain extent. If we are going to set up a Food Standards Agency it will presumably last for a very long time and, whilst the intentions could be perfectly honourable, if the procedures are not right at some time in the future just supposing there is a different government and, to take a practical example, if there is a scare, say, about baby food. Do you remember that scare about——
  (Tessa Jowell)  Milupa.

  735.  Thalates.
  (Tessa Jowell)  Thalates, yes.

  736.  In fact, there was not a substantial risk but because there were not proper procedures for making the information public in a sense when people found out about it it became a huge issue.
  (Tessa Jowell)  Can I just say in relation to that, because I remember that issue, you are talking about thalates in breast milk.

Ms Keeble:  No, it was in milk formula.


  737.  Infant formula.
  (Tessa Jowell)  There was a similar concern about thalates and breast milk which was dealt with by a scientific briefing by the Chief Medical Officer, a helpline, and there was absolutely no evidence that (a) people who needed the information did not get the information or (b) that there was undue and unfounded public alarm as a result. Clearly it is important that this kind of information is communicated to the public and communicated in a way which means that they can act on what they hear. I am not sure that this is integral to the way in which the concordats will operate.

Ms Keeble

  738.  Yes, it is, because in paragraph 22 it says "These concordats will, for example, cover such matters as the need for timely provision of information and consultation,..." I do not want to go on with it endlessly but I think perhaps we need to know at least at what stage we will have the whole procedures for these spelt out. An awful lot of the FSA's success or failure will depend on public confidence. If the public, particularly after the BSE scandal, get a whiff of the fact that the procedures or the bureaucracies are cosying up or there is any sort of thing that they are not party to then it will be profoundly damaging. If we can just have a timetable for when we will get information about this and we will see much more clearly how they will work and who will be involved in drawing them up.
  (Tessa Jowell)  We can certainly supply that and I hope that will be helpful to the Committee. I would just like to make two and a half other points by way of conclusion on this. The first is that concordats will not be legal documents and cannot override the Agency's power to publish its advice. That is point one.

  739.  Okay, that is helpful.
  (Tessa Jowell)  The second is that the concordats are essentially about the administrative detail and process of how departments and the Agency talk to each other. In relation to something like thalates in baby milk, that is not something that I would see as being driven by a concordat except in the broadest possible outline because the way in which that would be dealt with is a potential health scare and then the most important thing is to get the information about the nature of the scare out and advice on what people can do and some assessment of the risk. That has got nothing to do with the underpinning of processes which the concordat will provide.

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