Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 845 - 859)




  845.  Good afternoon, gentlemen. Could I welcome you to the last evidence taking session of this special Select Committee. I wonder if I could ask you, as a matter for the record, if you would mind introducing yourselves and the organisations you represent. Can I start with Mr Braxton Reynolds.
  (Mr Braxton Reynolds)  Sir, I am Braxton Reynolds, President of the Association of Public Analysts, Public Analyst and official Agricultural Analyst for the Counties of Devon and Cornwall also Torbay and the City of Plymouth.
  (Mr Stevens)  Bob Stevens, I am Vice President of the Association of Public Analysts, Public Analyst for the County of Worcester.
  (Mr Cull)  Nick Cull, I am an Executive Director of an organisation with the short name of LACOTS, the long name is the Local Authorities co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards. I hope you have received a brief summary of what that achieves and hope it helps.
  (Mr Ashley)  I am Michael Ashley, I am the Head of Environmental Development and Public Protection of the Local Government Association.
  (Mr Butterworth)  I am Steve Butterworth, I am the lead officer on food for the Institute of Trading Standards Administration and I am Director of Trading Standards and Consumer Protection in Devon County Council.
  (Mr Sherwood)  I am Ron Sherwood, a General Councillor of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, a Member of the Food and General Health Committee, and an Environmental Health Officer in Wigan.

Chairman:  Thank you very much. Could I ask Martyn Jones to start.

Mr Jones

  846.  Thank you, Chairman. It is well known that food law enforcement and food safety activity is extremely variable throughout the country and in terms of its enforcement. In fact, I have had examples cited to me in cities where it can vary from street to street. One authority can say they want a tiled surface and another authority in the next street can say they want a solid painted surface as being a safer situation. Is this a consequence of limited central guidance, or simply variability in local emphasis placed on the importance of food safety matters?
  (Mr Sherwood)  I think the one thing that we would like to see come out of the Food Standards Agency is an increase in central guidance, to equalise standards and to aid consistency of enforcement. I agree with you that at the moment there can be differences in opinion and differences in interpretation. LACOTS, as many of you will know, do a lot of work on trying to get consistency throughout the authorities but additional work in that area certainly would be welcomed.
  (Mr Butterworth)  I think that in sharing my colleague's comments here, there has been a lack of definition of standards for local authorities and consequently you end up with the situation that you referred us to earlier. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that there seems to be a lack of auditing or scrutiny by MAFF and the Department of Health which picks up on these points and helps draw these matters to the attention of local authorities and senior officials within the local authorities. I also think that whilst there have been sanctions that have been available within the legislation they have not been applied, so you end up with a situation where I think local authorities are in a very difficult situation. There is a call for uniformity and consistency in the application of the law which is demanded by Government, and businesses in particular, but local authorities, in trying to create a new community role, are pushing forward an agenda of choice and diversity and it is trying to reconcile those two elements which is the challenge. One of the fundamental roles of the Food Standards Agency is to remind local authorities they are a creature of statute and to set out an agenda which has clear expectations as to the role that local authorities have to play in the delivering of food law enforcement.
  (Mr Cull)  Perhaps I can put a slightly different spin on the question and say that I would not want to say that there is no variation, of course, I would not want to defend that at all, but a great deal has been done to promote consistency and advice. Advice is issued on a daily basis to local authorities. A great deal has been done to help local authorities achieve common advice to businesses through regular advisory bulletins to local authorities, training courses and so on.
  (Mr Ashley)  Could I add one further point which is a slightly different angle on consistency which you have raised, not so much between authorities but over time. One thing that local authority enforcement officers have found quite difficult to cope with is the changing expectation of their role over the last decade. The Food Safety Act of 1990 was a really quite tough act, a very robust piece of legislation, which then led to some very good codes for food enforcement. A few years later I think the deregulatory approach was brought in and that advocated a much lighter touch in terms of enforcement and I think the enforcement community has found that change over a period of years quite difficult to be clear as to exactly what expectations Government and the general community, including the business community, have of them.
  (Mr Braxton Reynolds)  There is no doubt within the framework of the statutory duties that there are certainly very substantial differences between different authorities. Indeed, I can say that the Association, assisted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, has prepared a number of draft questions which it might very well be that this Committee would find of use. They specifically focus on the differences which exist between local authorities and I have a copy here. It is in the usual standard format, there are something of the order of 66 questions that have been drafted. If I can hand that in to your Clerk that might be of some assistance.

  847.  To go on, on the consultation on the proposed levy scheme it is stated that food producers, manufacturers and retailers will all benefit from a new level of consistency and effective enforcement of food law. How do you believe that this will be achieved in practice?
  (Mr Braxton Reynolds)  I think it is probably fair to say that there will have to be very clear central guidance and direction as to the service level that is to be required and expected, that it will have to include both guidance as to the levels of inspection and quality of training that the inspectors will have to have. The point was taken earlier in responses from the previous people you examined about the question of the qualifications of the inspectors from the Agency and it would be necessary for there to be very clear objectives in terms of qualifications of all people who play a part in the regulation of the quality and safety of food.

  848.  How do you think that the Food Standards Agency will perform this monitoring role? If you could add that to your answers to speed things along. How would they be able to monitor this?
  (Mr Braxton Reynolds)  Certainly within the Agency they will have to have the level of skills in microcosm that exist in local authorities and vice versa. It will not be a question of a relationship of individual professions examining themselves but people with appropriate professional skills providing comparative examination.
  (Mr Cull)  To go back to your first question, I think there is a new era with the Agency coming along. There is an opportunity to develop new partnerships between Central Government and local authority delivery mechanisms. Certainly so far as local government is concerned I believe there is a vast commitment now to continuing to improve the agenda, the work that has been carried on over recent years that was described earlier, into new areas. I think that will contribute to the aims of consistency that everyone wants to see. I think that would be my answer. On the audit side, I do not think that audit necessarily should be seen just as something that is done unto you but something that actually starts within authorities themselves and clearly part of the management process of the enforcement authority, indeed any service of public sector delivery, is to carry out audits themselves, probably management quality systems that hopefully deliver the sorts of outcomes that everyone wants, the stated outcomes. After that there already exists inter-authority auditing which takes place, one authority auditing the work of another. I would not regard that as comfortable having been on the receiving end of that from time to time. It is far from comfortable being told by your peers where you have got room for improvement. That is the second level. The third, of course, quite rightly is for the Agency to come along and sample to make sure that whole system is working properly and to do some audits themselves. I hope there is a continuity and a consistency between those three levels.
  (Mr Ashley)  I very much agree with that last answer. We do have a new regime that is about to introduced of best value which will require local authorities to establish very clear standards themselves and I think the focus then is perfectly properly initially on self-regulation. Mr Cull has mentioned inter-authority auditing, peer group review, and groups already exist and have done for a number of years around the country that engage in that but that is now a practice that we will have to apply much more generally. I think we would like to see the Food Standards Agency in terms of its surveillance, observation, monitoring and auditing, the actual direct inspection, as being very much a backstop. If the system that we would like to bring about in terms of a much better quality self-regulation then the FSA ought to be in the background ensuring that system of self-regulation is working and stepping in where it manifestly is not working.
  (Mr Butterworth)  I would not differ from these remarks but I would say that from the local authority practitioner level regulation, whether it is food regulation or any form of regulation, does not feature highly in any of the primary goals of local authorities. It may well be that the establishment of the Agency setting clear and visible standards actually leads to a situation where perhaps for the first time for many years consumer protection as an issue features within those corporate objectives. That would help practitioners on the ground to draw attention to the fact that local authorities are creatures of statute and have a responsibility for helping the Government and the Agency to deliver its agenda but within a local authority framework. The auditing process needs to be clear, needs to be transparent, and, yes, there is a role for local authority practitioners to work with other practitioners in other authorities to try to deliver best value and value for money. I have to say as well that this is not just about local authorities, it is about business and consumers, it is about instilling public confidence in the food chain. I think there is still an attraction to the public to have some independent scrutiny and auditing which will bring failing authorities to account if that is indeed what is necessary.

  849.  That will be done by the FSA?
  (Mr Butterworth)  Yes.
  (Mr Sherwood)  I would not disagree with that at all. I think one of the extensions to inter-authority auditing with the FSA would obviously be the potential to second staff, enforcement officers, from local authorities on to the staff for fairly short periods. I think that interchange of expertise would do much to assist both sides and would provide a platform for monitoring performance between authorities whilst at the same time remaining fairly independent.

Ms Keeble

  850.  How do you see the FSA impacting on the work of LACOTS? How do you see the two organisations actually working together in practical terms?
  (Mr Cull)  Hopefully there will be a very large degree of congruence about what we are both trying to achieve. LACOTS, at the end of the day, is, and will remain, a local government body working at a collective level on behalf of local government and the Agency is a Central Government body. That relationship is absolutely crucial to make sure that the aims and the purpose behind the Act are actually put into force. I see a new partnership. Clearly there will need to be—and that process has already started—some adjustment of boundaries in some particular jobs but in the general thrust of things I see that being a healthy partnership with LACOTS working to provide a conduit of communication to local authorities, to enable local authorities to do the sorts of things we have just been discussing, through auditing processes for example, through the sharing and circulation of information, bearing in mind that LACOTS' remit is wider than just food, it is about regulation in the main body of local government and, therefore, there are other areas with generic issues, some matters you may have heard of—home authority work and auditing—that actually run across others. There are some read across opportunities there. I see a process of developing a new partnership with both working to develop the aims there, a great deal of partnership working.

  851.  Some of the other witnesses might like to comment on the way that the work is going to divvy up between Trading Standards Officers, Environmental Health Officers and the FSA, and in particular how the relationships there are going to work given that in some authorities, in the unitaries, the Trading Standards Officers and the EHOs will be employed by the same people and in some they will be working for different authorities and the relationship of the division of work between them will be quite difficult to organise. Do you see that being a problem?
  (Mr Cull)  Yes, of course, and in some two-tier authorities there are indeed different authorities involved in food hygiene work on the one hand and food standards work on the other. The codes of practice under the existing legislation require those authorities to co-ordinate and to discuss issues and to have regular liaison meetings which do take place. Clearly there is scope for an improvement in the development of that, as always there is. I think the answer is going to lie in working much harder to make sure that there is liaison and making sure the information for best practice and so forth is shared better.
  (Mr Stevens)  The concept of unitaries is a good one, the problem is that in practice the majority of unitary authorities that have been formed have been relatively small and not so able to do the job as the previous authorities. If I could cite the case of Berkshire where they had a trading standards operation that was a flagship almost, a very well established one with good staff, and that was split up into seven unitary groups and is simply not performing to the same level as it was before. Staff have been lost, staff have been downgraded and the function is not there. Perhaps the unitaries need to be bigger than they are at present.

  852.  Do you think there is going to be a problem of duplication of work in that you can end up having different people going and doing the checks required by the FSA? You can have quite a number of different people going to the same supermarket, say.
  (Mr Stevens)  There needs to be greater emphasis on the factory inspection approach whereby a home authority inspecting a factory from top to bottom thereby can give assurance that that factory is producing to the requirements of the Agency. That may minimise duplication which is going to be happening to some extent. Having said that, I do not think the amount of inspection that is going on is great enough to actually generate that much duplication, I think it is a worry that is perhaps being overplayed.
  (Mr Butterworth)  Just a few points, please. This is at the heart of making good use of the resources that are already within local authorities. To some extent we have had our professional difficulties. There are tensions between the various professions, that is a fact of life, but we have to move on. The agenda has been set here by Government and the Food Standards Agency and that is to put the public interest first. Can I just say that our responsibility is not just on food labelling, it does actually touch on areas like animal health and welfare and animal feeding stuffs where we work with other bodies like the State Veterinary Service. At the heart of this is the issue of making better use of the 6,500 practitioners out in the field, the Trading Standards Officers and Environmental Health Officers. There is a wonderful opportunity here to look afresh at the issue of competencies of practitioners because to some extent we both have a responsibility for dealing with legislation on the basis of quality assurance and on risk assessment, they are common strands that go through our work. I would like to see an opportunity for the Food Standards Agency to say "this is the legislation, these are our demands on local authorities and as a consequence of that what sorts of competencies and skills do we need from this enormous resource within local authorities to help us deliver the agenda and to enforce the legislation?" Maybe then we could actually build up a qualification, training and list of competencies that we could all subscribe to which would hopefully end up with the situation of us making better use of the very limited resources that we have at our disposal.

  853.  I was going to come on to ask about that. We should talk about the way the FSA will affect the work of local authority food enforcement officers and the possibility of tensions given the fact that, as Steven has mentioned, probably there are not enough inspectors and, as Mr Cull mentioned, on the food trading standards side you are responsible for everything from defective toys at Christmas to labelling on a packet of crisps and so on. The money is not ring-fenced in any way, there is no SSA for it. Implicitly, I have to say, if the existing mechanism had worked well we would not need the FSA. How do you think it is going to work on the ground? Would it not be easier simply to have a dedicated enforcement team, a food police as it were? What comments do you have, please?
  (Mr Cull)  I have just one comment. I understand, I think, some of the reasons why the Food Standards Agency is being introduced and I do not think it is solely to resolve all those problems and inadequacies in local government, but it is a whole raft of reasons which have been brought in, I understand. Of course local government needs to improve delivery mechanisms and I think one would accept that, but I think it is part of a larger cause.

  854.  Yes, of course, but what I am concerned about is whether the work being centred on the part of some of the local offices is going to get in the way of actually being able to work and drive standards up.
  (Mr Cull)  I think, given the sorts of framework issues we have been talking about today and the more rigorous setting of standards and auditing commitment from local government, the points you make are very valid ones, but given that framework, I believe there is a very good chance of driving forward a large improvement.

  855.  Do you think it is adequate to have the enforcement, which will be critical for the results, done by people who have other responsibilities as well, where there are not enough of you anyway, where you have got different lines of accountability and where standards and attitudes may vary?
  (Mr Cull)  Local government delivers a lot of things to national agendas with those accountabilities and I would have thought that same question could be raised in respect of most of the things that local government does in one way or another and providing the checks and balances are there, I believe that local government has got much to offer in terms of its local access and knowledge and accountabilities that actually benefit good, sound and effective enforcement, providing that those other things are all right.

  856.  And what are the checks and balances?
  (Mr Cull)  Well, we have talked about the main one, being well-defined standards, what we are actually trying to achieve, the sorts of things that Mike Ashley was talking about, clarity of the way of doing the job, plus the auditing that goes with that.
  (Mr Ashley)  There is, I think, a tension which in a sense Mr Cull was referring to in a lot of local government services between the generic approach and a more specialised approach. We have seen that perhaps particularly in social services and it has been true in environmental health over many years. Some people will argue for the value of the generic broadly-trained officer who can then go into a number of situations and there are definite advantages in terms of a single point of contact type of approach with benefits, I think, to the person being monitored or enforced. On the other hand, I think now that there is much greater concern over the last few years in terms of food control and food standards, I think the pendulum looks as if it is beginning to shift away from that generic approach back towards the kind of concerns that you were raising, namely the need for more specialised officers who will concentrate exclusively or almost exclusively on food. I do not think we, the LGA, have a particular view on that, but I think the way things are moving in terms of both central and local government and the general public now becoming more concerned, it does seem to me that that pendulum is beginning to swing back towards a more specialised approach.

  857.  Has anyone else got any specific comments?
  (Mr Butterworth)  Just to add to what Mike said, which is that I think that this to some extent reinforces the message I have been trying to get across that this is not about us, the professional disciplines, but it is about putting the public interest first, and if we have an investment in training and the consequence of which is to have one qualification for these practitioners, then what we will have is a food inspectorate out in the local authorities there delivering the Government's agenda, making the legislation work which puts our professional interests to one side, and puts the public interest first and foremost. There is still an issue out there in the field and it is one which to some extent brought about the review of MAFF's role in all of this, namely whether they were in a position to serve both the interests of the public, the consumer and the industry at large. Now, MAFF's predicament has been resolved, it is hoped, by the creation of the Agency, but it still remains an issue within local authorities because if we have an issue which we may need to raise in our local area, and that is an issue which ought to be brought to the attention of consumers, it may of course be a situation which could be prejudicial to the local economy, in which case we have got those sort of factors to take into consideration in determining whether or not it is a message we can put out without risking our own position within that local authority.

  858.  Do you think that the powers given to the FSA in clause 16, which I think is the one where they take over control from under-performing authorities, and somebody mentioned under-performing authorities, do you think that that is going to hamper working practices or do you think that that is actually a necessary measure and in what kind of circumstances would you see it possibly being used? I see LACOTS have got some quite trenchant comments about it—I think it is that same clause—in your evidence.
  (Mr Cull)  I think, together with the LGA, we have got some views, and it might perhaps be more appropriate for Mike Ashley to explain them, around the way in which those powers might be used, but the fact is, as I think somebody else said, that if there is a clear understanding of what the job is and that job is not being done, there is a reasonable way of getting to the point of saying, "You have failed. You are failing and you have failed". It is quite difficult to argue with the principle, but it is just the application of that principle, I think.

  859.  Excuse me if I have missed something, but who do you think should draw up the specifications? Do you think those should be jointly done?
  (Mr Ashley)  Yes, our view is that we would like to see the maximum amount of partnership work here in trying to draw up agreed standards. We have no problem at all with the concept of tough, centrally provided standards, but we would very much like to be involved obviously in their specifications, as you put it, and again we have no problem at all about back-stop powers, but they do need to be seen as powers of last resort which we would prefer retained by the Minister directly rather than by the FSA. I think if a function is to be removed from a democratically-elected local authority, and we certainly accept that in extremis that may have to happen if all other attempts at improvement fail, then it seems to me that that is something that the Minister obviously on advice ought to have to take directly.

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