Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 860 - 879)



  860.  Can I ask the civil servants, is there anything written down about how the specifications are going to be drawn up or have I missed that?
  (Ms Wordley)  As you know, it is not set out in the Bill, although of course there are powers under the Food Safety Act to draw up codes of practice, so there could be codes of practice, but there are already, as Mr Ashley and Mr Cull have mentioned, discussions going on as to how in practice these standards should be developed.

Dr Brand

  861.  Can I explore that a little further because it is a bit curious, this Bill, because we seem to have this co-operative approach, joint standards and everything works swimmingly and then suddenly there is this big stick and there does not seem to be anything in between those two. Also if the Agency withdraws the contract, which is not a contract from the local authority, how is funding going to be shifted? Would it not be more sensible really to have a contractual relationship between the Agency and LACOTS or through LACOTS with the local authority? It would get over the ring-fencing issue on what sort of money you can spend and provided you have a contract which is auditable, you could then adjust things as they go along rather than having a situation where it is either all or nothing.
  (Mr Ashley)  If I can make a start on that, the idea of the rather sudden leap from the harmonious production of joint standards to, as you call it, the big stick we would very much want to avoid. I think it would be very strange——

  862.  I imagine it could be an acrimonious situation for a number of years because there is not a direct contractual relationship that you can actually measure, but there are going to be indications of what you might be expected to perform, and if a local authority digs its heels in, it could take years to sort that one out rather than having a clear relationship.
  (Mr Ashley)  I rather suspect and I rather hope that it will not take years. I do not think it would be acceptable for a clearly failing authority not taking account of national standards, not listening to the proddings of colleague professionals, taking no notice of the inter-authority auditing that we want to see. If they are simply determined not to deliver a proper service, we have no problem about sooner rather than later that being dealt with. Now, having said that sort of toughly, we actually do hope that the main responsibility will be taken by local authorities individually and collectively with LACOTS, with the kind of joint work that we have talked about, but if that does not work, then there are clear powers which we support in the Bill that the Government would be able to act. In terms of your contract concept, it does seem to me that we still, however, start from the point of view that we do want to see the major primary responsibility for food control and enforcement to be with local authorities, but it is a statutory responsibility on them and not something that should be the subject of a contract, whilst accepting that if they fail in their responsibility, action could be taken. On ring-fencing, I think that is an interesting debate that perhaps other questions will refer to later. Although individual groups and professions and groups of officers may favour ring-fencing and believe that part of the troubles here are that the money has not been able to be ring-fenced in terms of local government financial arrangements, the LGA's view generally, albeit with exceptions, is that because there is a huge range of demands that are placed on local authorities and they simply have to juggle as best they can meeting the various needs and responsibilities that they have within what they regard as a limited amount of money, in general we oppose ring-fencing because it simply creates too many stickinesses in terms of the very difficult job of meeting our responsibilities across a very wide range.

Chairman:  I would like to bring Diana Organ in here.

Mrs Organ

  863.  We want to talk about the finances, the resources and the ring-fencing. Do we not have a problem here, in that you have talked about raised expectation? We are talking about the Food Standards Agency coming in. We are talking about the Minister saying that he wants "an improvement in enforcement inspections" because you are going to get a whole load more dosh from the levy. However, the big problem is, as we know from what happened with the Food Safety Act 1990, you were given a whole load of extra responsibilities, and in my authority the trading standards people have told me they did not get a penny extra. So if you do not ring-fence it, because it is down to local demography—and with the best will in the world, the areas we are talking about are not as sexy as education and social services, and members will make decisions accordingly—you are not going to get any more money. So how are you going to do it? How are you going to meet all these things which we have just been talking about for the last three-quarters of an hour?
  (Mr Butterworth)  It goes back to where we started this debate, which was on standards. At this moment in time there is a lack of clear standards. It is very easy for a chief officer to go back to elected members and say, "This is a statutory responsibility", but they would then try to find out where that bottom line is. If we reduce the number of food inspections and take less food samples, at what point are you deemed to be a failing authority, and at what point is a government agency or department going to intervene? So it is our expectation and our hope that once you get clear standards and you get some indication that somebody is going to be held to account if they do not meet those standards, then even if you do not get ring-fencing—and it would be our profession's preference to get the money ring-fenced—if that does not come about, that there is an indication that with the passage of any new legislation, first and foremost they have taken account of the needs of local authorities to discharge those responsibilities; and secondly that that amount of money is made clear and transparent, so we do not have to get into some kind of beauty contest with schools and social services.

  864.  So you would advocate ring-fencing the money?
  (Mr Butterworth)  Yes, we would.
  (Mr Sherwood)  I would not disagree with him either. I think we are talking about modulating standards. You keep mentioning this word "standard". I am not sure that at this moment in time any of us has got anywhere near to defining what that standard is. At the moment we have various Audit Commission measures which ostensibly only measure the number of inspections done. There is little to measure the quality of those inspections or the outcome and whether there is a significant improvement in food safety coming out. I think there is a whole world there which needs looking at, and there is much work which needs doing. The CIEH have been doing work, and others have as well, to try to establish some means of measuring the outcome and whether the actual food safety is improving in particular premises.
  (Mr Ashley)  I have to say that we recognise that there is a genuine dilemma here. We are also aware that the roughly £30 million which was put into the Local Government Settlement following the 1990 Act was not generally spent on food control. We have actually written to our members, we circularised our members and indicated that we felt this was unfortunate. The Government had given pretty clear signals, even if there was no ring-fencing there, that this Act was meant to improve standards, and that money, frankly, should have been spent in that area. However, we are torn, because in general, instead of appearing here today to talk about food, the Local Government Association could be talking about education, or social services, or libraries, and each of those services would come with an argument that their service is essential, in many cases statutory, and that it is extremely difficult to require that kind of ring-fencing all across the board if the total amount of money then is not sufficient to meet those statutory responsibilities.

  865.  With the best will in the world, though, if you do not have ring-fencing or you do not become agents of a national food agency, we are going to have the same thing again, and you are going to have loads of authorities saying, "Well, we're failing, and if we're failing that's not really such a bad thing, because then that responsibility gets taken away from us and we don't have to worry about how we're going to resource it." So we are going to have not a driving up of standards, but an interim of a whole load of smaller authorities failing, because with the best will in the world Government will say, "Oh yes, this money should go in there", but if it is not ring-fenced it is not going to come to you, is it, unless you become agents of the Agency?
  (Mr Ashley)  We need to recognise both in central and local government that we have not given sufficient attention to food control. It does seem to me that the events of the last 30 years and the advent of a Food Standards Agency is bringing a change in that. I think that central government is now prepared to face that and to fund a new approach, and local government is now ready to do the same. I accept that there will continue to be pressures if there is not an element of ring-fencing, but I do think the situation and the atmosphere have changed.

  866.  What about your views on the way that this extra money is going to be coming to you? If you are in an area like mine—Gloucestershire—with districts and the county, the districts are going to be gathering the levy which effectively Government is saying is where the extra money is coming from, but the county, through trading standards, are going to get it from somewhere, and they are concerned about the fact that it is not going to be a direct handover from the districts to the Food Standards Agency, it is going to go back again. Can I have your views on how you feel about one lot gathering the money and the other lot spending it, the distribution, how effective it is going to be and how much it is going to cost the local authorities to collect?
  (Mr Ashley)  You have put your finger on an important issue which I do not think was perhaps fully covered within the levy consultation document. We have also identified that issue of county and districts. Clearly, if you want to build on collection systems and to get the advantage of that administratively, those will be handled by districts. In Gloucestershire the individual district councils are the obvious collection agency, they will gather the £90. They will then retain a sum of money, which has to be agreed, in relation to the costs of collecting that money, and administer the register.

  867.  What would be your estimate of what that would be? You are dealing with local government all the time, you know about collecting funds. To collect £90 from one outfit, how much are they going to retain for the bureaucracy and the handling of that?
  (Mr Ashley)  I think that is a difficult judgement to make, and I am probably not going to give you a straight answer.

  868.  Is it £89 or £2?
  (Mr Ashley)  No, it is a lot less than £89. The figures which have been mentioned have varied from somewhere between £15 and £23 to £25, so it is in that kind of area. The difficulty, which is an element which you did touch on, is that part of the promise, if you wish, or the sweetener for local authorities in acting as a collection agency in this way is that if they collect the levy efficiently, rather than have larger or smaller food control needs, then it ought to be the case that there will be some money which they will be able to retain over and above the levy collection for spending on enhanced food control locally. One of our problems about the consultation document is that all of that is at the moment rather vague, and we do need to go into detailed negotiations with government officials about that, but we do have considerable concerns as to whether that very much enhanced service can be delivered in that way. Our biggest worry of all is that given that there will be variations in local costs of collection, if you fix it at roughly a kind of an average collection cost, logically there are going to be quite a large number of authorities below the average, with above-average costs, who may actually end up losing money financially in the collection of the levy. Obviously that is of great concern to our members.

  869.  What about the other option that one way of actually being rather, shall we say, cost-effective because of the economies of scale is that authorities club together across borders and they say to each other, "You are pretty good on the farm", "You become specialist on labelling", "You become specialist on enforcement", and actually you have a cluster or a region of authorities that specialise in different areas to meet the raising of the standards that the Food Standards Agency is talking about?
  (Mr Cull)  When you were raising the other questions about delivery, I had written down here about co-ordination being one of the by-products of best value. I think it will inevitably drive authorities to say, "Could I do something in a different way?" and one different way is to do it with somebody else or to collaborate. I would say that certainly enforcement agencies, enforcement authorities have got quite a good history of actually working together. There are liaison groups certainly. Food and environmental health authorities work together at the moment and trading standards have 20 years worth of regional groups. I am not saying there is not room for improvement of course, but they have actually shared information, they have had common sampling programmes, for example, and projects and many areas inevitably work better than others because of individuals on them and there is a long history of authorities working together whilst retaining their own local autonomy and accountability.

  870.  I was thinking of letting go of a little bit of the local autonomy in order to be more strategic with the use of resources, particularly in this area, because we want to raise standards nationally.
  (Mr Cull)  I think perhaps the first question you posed at the very beginning about whether ring-fencing is the only answer, I was going to say that if we had not got the Food Standards Agency coming along and we were just having a discussion about food enforcement, I suspect I would have to agree with a lot of my colleagues and say yes, but if the circle of standards, audit, improvement, failure works, and we must all make sure it does work, then it should not be necessary, and it may prove me wrong, but it should not be necessary. Local authority elected members have not had that sort of rigour of working in that regime before and, therefore, it has been easy to give priority to other areas of local delivery.
  (Mr Butterworth)  I think there are a number of examples throughout the country where authorities are working together under the banner of the best value regime and on a number of occasions a number of Midlands authorities, of which Gloucestershire is one, have been espoused. To some extent you need the determination and commitment of senior officers and politicians to make that arrangement work and the inevitable conclusion of all of this is that you might get it working well in some areas, but not in other parts of the country and I hope that what will happen at some stage in the future leads to an improvement on what we have at the moment. I can cite other examples of local authorities where I know that during the LGR, the local authority, the county, went to new unitaries in the making and said, "You are very small, but we have got quite a good breadth of expertise within the authority, so is there an opportunity for creating a service-level agreement whereby if you are content with the service, we can develop one which meets your local needs and local aspirations, we can re-badge it, re-logo it and we can provide that local unitary authority service?", and the view was that that was not what local government reorganisation was all about, one view expressed was that "If we provide a poor service, at least it will be our poor service and it will be us brought to account in all of this". That is not a view I share, but it is what happens in practice because since then, the amount of money that is invested in training in trading standards has just withered on the vine in recent years and yet we find ourselves in a situation where in a shire county, like my own, for example, one of my staff will go to a training course to deal with the new feeding stuffs responsibilities—it is going to have a massive burden on a local authority like Devonshire—on the same occasion a small unitary authority, sends an officer to attend the same course. Now, we have got 10,000 farms and twelve livestock farms and it is very important to us, but in this particular case, one smaller authority in question have got six farms and when I confronted my counterpart in Torbay, I said, "Would it make sense to buy in that level of resource, skill and expertise?" and the answer was, "Well, you know the politics of the situation". I am afraid that we need somehow some spur to actually change that sort of thinking because it is not in the public's interest to approach issues like training and expertise where we have all accepted the fact that there is not enough money and resources in the system and we have got to make better use of it.

Mr Paterson

  871.  It is not clear how the FSA will relate to other authorities at local, European or international level. How do you see it working?
  (Mr Cull)  At one level of course it is increasingly important. There is European consistency of enforcement and you cross all areas of enforcement and that is becoming a theme which is picked up and stressed with the UK Presidency a year ago and it has been continued with others ever since and there are mechanisms for doing that. There is an organisation, for example, called Food Law Enforcement Practitioners in Europe, FLEP, which brings together enforcement practitioners from Member States to discuss issues, so I would have thought it was going to be increasingly important to develop collaboration at that European level.

  872.  Do you think there should be more in the Bill on this?
  (Mr Cull)  I had not addressed myself to that question. I will ponder it now for a moment or two.

  873.  I think it is the first time we have heard of FLEP.
  (Mr Cull)  There are similar sorts of fora in other areas that bring together enforcement increasingly with the Commission taking a role of stimulating and acting as a catalyst for those, such as food product safety and metrology.

  874.  There is not time now, so could you send a note on how FLEP works and who goes on it?
  (Mr Cull)  Certainly.

  875.  There are some changes coming up here with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, so how do you see that affecting your relationship with the FSA?
  (Mr Cull)  I suppose that from LACOTS' perspective, because we have got a UK-wide remit, therefore, we are funded by local government one way or another throughout the UK, Scotland and Wales especially and Northern Ireland, I suppose you can see the scope for differences and inconsistencies taking place unless the process is managed to have some sort of UK-wide framework because I would have thought it was in the interests of business and, therefore, the consumer to have as much consistency about the process at least, although I can conceive that Scotland, for example, may want to give particular attention to a particular social issue which may have a food aspect to it, so I can see there is scope for some sort of inconsistency unless we work hard the other way round.

  876.  Do you think that is a bad thing? Would you like to see uniformity or would you like to see some regional variation?
  (Mr Cull)  Well, I can see a reason why regional variation might take place because politicians and so forth believe there is a regional issue which they need to give particular attention to which is a different issue in a different region. I suppose I would like to see some sort of consistency of process, so we are talking about things like auditing and base standards in interpretations, and it seems to me that if we start to have inconsistency there, it makes the whole job of enforcement and compliance more difficult.

  877.  And you think the devolved assemblies might lead in that direction?
  (Mr Cull)  I think it becomes more likely than less likely.


  878.  We were talking in our earlier session about the question of performance indicators of the Agency and so on and I do not know if you heard, but it gets very good at actually identifying and reporting things like food poisoning and a lot of it is not identified and reported currently, so a performance indicator would look pretty horrific and you could see a growth increase in terms of statistics of food poisoning in this country after the FSA assumes this national role, which we assume it will do in terms of looking at food poisoning. How do you think that your functions, local authority functions, the performance indicators that you have now, are they likely to change? What should the FSA be thinking of implementing in terms of what is happening now? What should they be thinking about in terms of getting good performance indicators in the future when we are looking at food safety improvement being the issue and if you have any thoughts about what indicators they should be looking for, how does that relate to the best value we have talked about?
  (Mr Stevens)  For some time the public analysis laboratories had very definite performance indicators in terms of reporting the work that they do and the results that they produce. This is very necessary in terms of protecting public health and the public purse and making sure that labelling is adequately informative. That does not achieve the end if there are not similar indicators on the way that sampling is conducted and we look to the FSA to give definite guidance on that.
  (Mr Ashley)  The Audit Commission obviously is another body which traditionally has developed performance indicators, but there has been a lot of criticism historically about those which have been applied to trading standards and to environmental health, in which the emphasis has been on inputs or process—number of inspections, for example—which does not seem the most important thing to measure in many respects. If you are running a really good regime, you may well be able to do with less inspections and more advice. The difficulty with performance indicators is that whatever you choose, if you choose a single indicator—and I think that is the biggest problem—there is always the danger that there will be some perverse element relating to the indicator. If you choose food poisoning, it is rather like crime statistics; if the spotlight is on it for a period of time, you may actually get a sudden increase which is basically an increase in reporting, rather than a genuine underlying increase in the thing you are attempting to measure. So all of these are very well known problems about performance indicators, but babies should not be thrown out with bath waters, because I think a regime of performance indicators is an absolutely essential indicator of the kind of performance indicators we want to see. I think the trick is to make sure you have a basket of performance indicators which measure different things in different ways, so that you can get an overall aggregate feel for the quality of the service, rather than relying, as the Audit Commission have done for too long, on some very particular single indicators.
  (Mr Sherwood)  I think that one of the important areas is to look at the effect which the food hygiene audit has on the standard of the premises. It is crucial, because without that none of us knows what improvements there are or, worse, how places are deteriorating. There is much data available, and obviously there is a standard scheme set out in Code of Practice Number 9. The three elements of that which would obviously need to be looked at are those of competence in management, how the premises complies, and what the food safety record is. The CIEH has been doing some work looking at an average score across the premises, and other work has been done particularly focusing on the confidence in management score and how that is improving over the life of the inspection regime. There are very, very complex issues there, and I think it is an area which the Food Standards Agency, and probably only the Food Standards Agency, can address long term to come up with some proper standard by which we can all judge ourselves.

  879.  I am quite interested in what you say, Mr Sherwood. Mr Ashley, as I understand it, the Audit Commission in the early 1990s found that there really ought to be some better performance indicators, as it were. It was initially that different levels of food premises from A to E should be visited on a regular basis. That has now changed to say that the ones in the higher-risk areas—A, B and C—should be visited at least twice a year, and that the ones at the lower end should have even perhaps a five-yearly visit. That is in the code of practice at the present time. What is not in there—and it relates really to what Mr Sherwood has been saying about overall improvement—is that there is no overall indicator to say how a premises is doing in terms of getting a premises down one on that scale. As we understand it, somebody may be in a higher category than another premises which is doing basically the same thing, but maybe the management standards or training of staff or something mean that it is not down there. Do you think that bringing premises down the risk scale would be a good indicator for the Food Standards Agency to look at?
  (Mr Ashley)  Yes, it could be. There are some problems about absolute and relative levels. In a sense, in the same way that the poor are always with us, you could argue that relatively poorly performing premises or higher-level risks relatively will always be there. The obvious aim must be in terms of outcomes rather than inputs to effect a measurable improvement in performance. There will always be people and there will always be premises which will remain higher risk and lower risk, but you are quite right, somehow we have to devise indicators which actually allow us to help drive down and measure the fact that we have driven down poor performance and, indeed, things like food poisoning.

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