Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 780 - 784)

THURSDAY 11 MARCH 1999

MR JEFF ROOKER, MP and RT HON TESSA JOWELL, MP  

  780.  You have not said so in the Bill.
  (Mr Rooker)  We cannot because 23 is an enabling clause. It is on public record on umpteen occasions that the Government will not seek to raise more than £50 a year. We all know, because the Chairman has read them out, the kinds of figures that we think food safety costs in this country, we do not know the final figure of what local authorities actually spend. What is being proposed by the levy over three years is a very tiny proportion, certainly less than a quarter, of the total of food standards and safety expenditure, the rest being met by taxation both at a central and local level on top of which, and I have to say this because it is important, is what the industry itself spends. I freely admit that big food manufacturers spend a fortune on their laboratories and their testing and their research and their checking of standards, they spend a fortune on this and I am not in any way denigrating that, it is just as well they do because that is an important contribution to the safety of the food chain.

Mr Paterson

  781.  Your document proposes that local government will maintain registers of food premises and will collect the levy and they are permitted to take a slice of the levy to pay for their administration costs. You have also said that you are going to be consulting with them during this period. How are your consultations going, how is local government taking this? Who do you think they will put in to bat to collect the levy and what sort of slice will they be taking out?
  (Mr Rooker)  The very first sentence you said there that we are proposing that local authorities have a register of food premises—we are not. There is a legal obligation now to have a register of food premises. We are using the existing legal obligation on which to piggyback the collection because it is cheaper. In other words, we do not have to go and measure anything, we know where the food premises are. It is true that there is no incentive for local authorities at the present time to find places that are registered and of course if they are not registered it means they are not inspecting them either. By definition, they are supposed to be inspecting these food premises. If there are food premises not registered they are not being inspected. Part of our task here is to make sure we toughen that up so that all food premises get on that register. It is a legal requirement. We have not decided the cut, if you like. What we did say was within the £90 we are confident that there is enough there to cover the collection costs of local authorities—so there is no extra requirement of local authorities to have extra money from the Department of the Environment—as well as a modest amount of extra resource for them to actually improve their enforcement performance. We have not got a figure that I can give you. It is fairly modest but nevertheless it is not chicken feed. Their collection costs would be recovered and they could retain then a modest amount in addition to use for their own resources to improve their enforcement. If as a result of this there is an incentive to get far more food premises on the register than there are now that has got to be good for food standards. We are in genuine consultation with them obviously because the way they collect money may vary from authority to authority and we try to avoid central collection with the Food Agency doing it itself. Because local authorities have got this register, or they are supposed to have put it that way, of these food premises, it seemed to us administratively cheaper than any other scheme. I invite the Committee as I have invited every meeting I have done, and I will be doing the road show again tomorrow and Monday in different parts of the country to ask people to come up with something that is cheap and easy collect that will provide the same amount money that seems fair, if you think there is an alternative.

Ms Keeble

  782.  You have made it very clear that you want this to be an Agency that has a new culture that will be open and transparent and so on and bring substantial changes and benefits. It is quite difficult to envisage exactly what you mean partly because it is a new Agency. It would be quite helpful if you could say if there is an Agency that exists now which you think it would be most like just so we can get some idea of what kind of organisation you have in mind. I know it is a very hypothetical point but it would help to give some idea and flavour of the way in which it is likely to operate.
  (Tessa Jowell)  Can I have a crack at that and say I think it is very difficult to establish any kind of analogy because this is a new body. There is not quite anything like it so far and if there are analogies that work maybe bits of them we will want to borrow from and bits of them that we specifically will not want to borrow from. I think it is probably not a good idea to cast around for an agency that we would see acting as a model. If I can just say, Sally, I think within your question is also another question which is about how we will recognise the Agency's success or failure.

  783.  That is right.
  (Tessa Jowell)  And I think that that is very important and there are a number of ways in which I suspect everybody here would recognise its success—that we do see greater confidence in the public in the safety of food, that people are more informed and more aware about the content of food and what they eat, that there is greater awareness about the risks and patterns of transmission of food-borne illness. I would say, as I think I said before, that simply taking a crude figure like a reduction in the amount of food-borne illness is perhaps a false trail because it may well be that improved surveillance and improved public awareness will actually see the incidence of reported food-borne illness increase in the short term. I think in the long run we would certainly want to be able to make some sort of judgment about the way in which food borne illness is managed and that it will be managed better than it is at the moment. There is still too much fragmentation and we do want to get to grips with that. As I think I have said before, I have asked the Chief Medical Officer to lead a review of communicable disease, of which food borne illness is part, in order to ensure that every link in what can be quite a long chain is as good and as strong as it can be. There will be all these areas of joint work, going back to where we started three hours ago, in relation to nutrition and the safety of what may be new foods but also there will be very important areas of joint work, I suspect, that will develop in relation to the management of communicable and specifically food borne illness.

Chairman

  784.  Ministers, could I thank you both very much indeed. I do apologise for the long session but, as you are well aware, Parliament did put us under a very tight timetable in terms of evidence taking and it is not the first session that has overrun but a 50 per cent overrun is quite heavy. Thank you very much indeed for both evidence sessions.
  (Mr Rooker)  The sessions have been very useful for us likewise.
  (Tessa Jowell)  Thank you very much.


 
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