Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 740 - 759)



  740.  Just before I move on to my next point, what I am saying is not about the management of a food scare, for example, it is information about research being done. It is hard to imagine, because we do not know exactly how the structures will work, but if there is information about research being done and that is passed around from one ministry to another or from one bit to another, or there is a test which has found something untoward and that information is passed around, the way that is passed can be quite important. I am sure you understand that all it needs is for an investigative reporter to phone up and find out that there is research going on and a memo circulating somewhere and, hey presto, before you know where you are you have got a food scare. It is not about once the research is done and the issue is established, it is just about the procedures, that is all.
  (Mr Rooker)  With respect, Sally, every example you have given is not relevant to these concordats. There are people with a natural suspicion of Government and I hope I have still got a healthy scepticism myself, but the fact of the matter is administratively you have got to make the machine work so that department talks to department and agencies are involved and we all know who is the lead or who is answering which PQ and that kind of thing. It is an administrative matter. All of the examples that you have given are outwith the role of these concordats.

  741.  If we can have information about them that would be helpful.
  (Mr Rooker)  By all means.

  742.  If we can go on to the personnel. There are three or four advisory committees described in Clauses 4 and 5, how will they work in practice? Are there areas that are envisaged that could, in fact, have been established or appointed by the Government at this stage? I understand that these ones are going to be established by the Agency once it is set up, is that right?
  (Mr Rooker)  In Clauses 4 and 5 you are referring purely to devolution. That is only devolution.

  743.  There are some other ones as well, are there not?
  (Mr Rooker)  No. Clause 4 relates to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

  744.  I am thinking about Clause 6.
  (Mr Rooker)  The other advisory committees. All I can do is point you to the paper that you have had today. Those that report into the FSA, which are the top four, will be handed over, as it were. The FSA will make its own decisions as to what advice it wants to take. If it wants public advisory committees, if it wants to merge or create new ones, it will have the power to do that. These are not statutory advisory committees. There is the list in the White Paper I referred to earlier on. Some are statutory but most are non-statutory advisory committees.

  745.  When it comes to the appointment of the members of the Agency, in particular the chair, have you got any timetable for that and how are descriptions and so on going to be drawn up? Obviously, as has already been said, the people who are appointed to these particular posts are going to be key to the success or failure of it.
  (Mr Rooker)  At the risk of correction, we have no favoured list of named people whatsoever for the chair of the Commission, or the Board as it might be called, or indeed the Chief Executive. Once the House has given a proper Bill, if I can call it that, a second reading the Government has then got the parliamentary authority to advertise for the chair. I suspect that will be the first one.

  746.  It be down to open advert?
  (Mr Rooker)  I have said that before. I deeply regret you have to ask that question because it implies——

  747.  I wanted to make sure we had it on the record, that is all.
  (Mr Rooker)  Everybody appointed to the Commission, the 10 to 14 people, and the Chair will all be appointed after public advertisement, fully consistent with the Nolan and Peach principles. The same will apply to the Chief Executive. They will all be appointed openly, sifted with external sifters, outside ministers. The final appointment will be made by the Health Secretary in conjunction with other Ministers rather than the MAFF Minister. It is a Health Department appointment. Anyone who thinks that they might want to be on the Agency and thinks they have got to wait for a phone call, then frankly they will not get a phone call. There will be an advertisement, probably more than one I suspect, which people will be asked to respond to. It does not matter who they are, if they want to be considered for this role they are going to have to apply.

Audrey Wise

  748.  You have said something that I was going to ask and that is that Nolan and Peach will apply to them, so that is fine. With the criticism from some quarters and possibly the wider concern felt but not expressed about Lord Sainsbury's involvement with GMOs just to take an example, do you not think it would be advisable to include a prohibition on Agency members with particular beneficial interests, not "I am interested" or "I am experienced" but beneficial interests, from participating in discussions about them. I am not saying from being members of the Agency, you understand, but where a particular matter is under discussion should somebody who has a beneficial interest be part of the discussion about them?
  (Mr Rooker)  You are presupposing this is a member of the Agency someone who has already been appointed to the Agency?

  749.  Yes, an actual member.
  (Mr Rooker)  Like a board or commission or whatever it is going to be called. Nobody will be excluded from applying and their interests and their expertise could be relevant anyway. They will all be individual appointments and expected to work in a collegiate way. Nobody is ruled out because of a beneficial interest which may be a pension, shareholdings or someone in a university department or a hospital with research contracts. That of course would be open, published and transparent like our own advisory committees have to publish all that. It may be for the Chair of the Commission and the Chief Executive that much more onerous conditions are put on. We have had no discussion about this but it may be in those circumstances we would not appoint anybody who had a remotely beneficial interest. I only say that because of the special nature of the Chair and Chief Executive. I do not know. We have not decided. When it comes to discussions after people are appointed, because interests can change for whatever reason, because these will be part-time people of course on the Commission, then when issues arise that have to be properly declared it may be the case that they do not take part in some discussions. That happens on our existing advisory committees now and on some issues it goes beyond not taking part in the discussion and the advisory committee members may absent themselves from the discussion. That does not devalue their membership of the committee but it shows how serious we it in this country take, I have to say contrary to our American cousins where in our discussions over the supplement B6 we got people we knew would not have been allowed in the room in discussions in this country whereas in America they have got interests up to their neck and they are allowed inside the discussions taking place. We take a very rigid view on this and that view will be the same in the Agency. I hope I have not sugar-coated it too much; I did not intend to.

  750.  What you are saying is that although it is not mentioned in the Bill it is nevertheless going to be part of practice.
  (Mr Rooker)  Absolutely.

  751.  Because it would be ironical and paradoxical if there were heavier prohibitions on, say, the participation of a local councillor in much more minor matters than on a very important national committee like this.
  (Mr Rooker)  The rules have changed following Nolan. They have changed beyond all recognition from what they were ten years ago. The practices have also changed as well. We know that because we have a lot of experience of advisory committees and health does as well and we share some of them. I have visited all the MAFF statutory committees and sat in at some of the beginnings of meetings when people are asked to look at the agenda and declare all their interests and I was amazed at the detail of the Veterinary Products Committee of the interests that were being declared around the room. That is not to say there were loads of interests being declared but the nature of the very remote interests that were actually being declared, all noted with external assessors there as well.

  752.  I notice that you mention that the members of the Agency would be part time. Is that laid down somewhere?
  (Mr Rooker)  I knew you were going to ask that.

  753.  It is a pretty big job they are going to have.
  (Mr Rooker)  It is and I probably should not have said that because I do not know. The assumption is that the Chief Executive will be full time. I suspect whoever chairs it will be appointed part time but be pretty full time in reality and the rest of them would be part time, but part time meaning they are not full time. That is a fair way of putting it. Those who are appointed, for example the two from Scotland, one from Wales and Northern Ireland, who are appointed for other reasons, but nevertheless we will have to match that because they will be the chairs of the advisory committees in those territorial countries so they will have a quite an onerous task in terms of time. Time management is important but they will be part time. Do not ask me how long they are going to be appointed for because I cannot answer that because we have not decided, maybe three or five years. We have not got that far down the road yet.

  754.  It does mean they are going to have to have another source of income, does it not?
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes.

  755.  It is not many people, is it, between 10 and 14, so would it not be much clearer that they are actually independent if they were fully engaged with the Agency and did not have to seek some other source of income apart from would it not enable them to do the job better as well?
  (Tessa Jowell)  Let me just answer that and say that I think that if we look across a whole range of public appointments where we ask people to give very large amounts of their time for which they receive remuneration which in no way compensates them or amounts to being a salary for the job that they have done, it is the case that by and large those appointments are part-time appointments. If we look at health trusts and health authorities within my own department that is the case. I think that there is a benefit in having people who are part- time appointments to bodies like this rather than people who are doing this to the exclusion of everything else because they are appointed because of their wider experience and it is important to maintain their wider experience.

  756.  It reminds me, Minister, of some of the discussions that go on sometimes around Members of Parliament?
  (Tessa Jowell)  I thought you were going to say that, Audrey!

  757.  Some of us do think that being a Member of Parliament is a sufficient task and it is not hard to maintain contact and I would have thought unless these are going to be appointed for 25 years or something they should be able to maintain contact. So it is something that I would suggest, partly for the sake of confidence in the Agency and efficiency, you might like to continue to think about?
  (Mr Rooker)  They are not going to be there to manage the Agency, they are there to govern the agency. The Chief Executive and his or her team will manage the Agency. You have to draw a distinction between management and governance.

  758.  Yes, I understand that, but Members of Parliament do not run departments either.
  (Mr Rooker)  Actually neither do ministers. It is not our job to run the department, it is our job to govern the department, the management is a separate issue.

  759.  I understand that. I still think that being a member of this Agency is going to be a very tough job to do part-time. It is a very big national body with huge responsibilities. I have put the question and had the answer and I would suggest that you think about it a bit more. I will move on to another slightly related question but more about the staff of the Agency. To what extent will the staff be composed of civil servants from the existing set-ups, from the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group or from related agencies? To what extent will there be new blood and to what extent will it be transfers? How will you ensure that you get the new culture that I think you have talked about before and that many witnesses have talked about?
  (Mr Rooker)  One cannot say that precisely because obviously we consider the members of the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group are the embryo of the Agency. They will not be forced to transfer to the Agency, there will be a choice there. The Agency staff will be civil servants, we have made that clear in the White Paper and that was something we did not consult on, it was not negotiable in that sense, like the location of the headquarters. Nevertheless, and the numbers are coming from memory now, it is approximately 300 or thereabouts. It is estimated the Agency's central headquarters staff will be in excess of 400-450, so there will be new blood recruited from within and without the Civil Service, I am absolutely certain about that. There may be some members who, having joined the Food Standards and Safety Group, who having experienced, if you like, the joy of planning and everything else will want to go off and plan and set up something else within Government, say, rather than run something. It will be a free choice. The chances are the majority of them will transfer to the Agency but the Agency will not be solely composed of the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group. Your other question relates to the culture. In some ways the culture of the Agency will be set by the people appointed to the board and the Chief Executive. What we have been trying to do in our modest way since the election and between now and when vesting day comes is to actually deliberately change the culture of the way that particularly my ministry, which was much criticised for its culture, operates. I have to say without exception the staff involved have embraced the culture that we wanted which was openness and transparency from day one. There has never been any backsliding on that. They have had to slow ministers down occasionally when we wanted to move a bit faster than we should have done but the lawyers are always around, of course, and I suspect the Agency will have its own lawyers as well. The culture of openness and transparency and putting consumers first was our priority and by definition you end up treading on the toes of producers and that does cause a problem from time to time. We have made some of that change in the way we publish information about food, in our surveillance programmes, the hygiene scores. All of those are changes since 1997. That ethos will transfer to the Agency but it will then create its own culture as well by the nature of the people appointed to run it.

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