Examination of witnesses (Questions 720
THURSDAY 11 MARCH 1999
and RT HON
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 questionsI
am not denying that and I am in no way being criticalbut
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 dayand
I will not name the details because I think it would be unfairthat
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
(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!
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
(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.
(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
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
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.