Examination of Witnesses (Questions 900
MONDAY 15 MARCH 1999
STEVENS and MR
E BRAXTON REYNOLDS
900. Am I right in thinking that this is
likely to be happening in butchers' shops quite shortly anyway?
(Mr Ashley) Yes.
(Mr Reynolds) And it, therefore, means that the
public themselves would be providing the policing that is necessary
to identify whether or not premises are being used to provide
catering without a licence. This is going forward.
(Mr Cull) One of the key success factors or performance
criteria for a local authority will be the extent to which it
does recognise food businesses and again, going back to that word
"audit", asking how well do you recognise food businesses
that are not on the register so that you can make necessary risk
assessment and deliver the necessary advice, carry out the necessary
inspections and be a critical ingredient to how well an authority
is enforcing this particular law, whether or not with registration
or licensing, but just on its own.
Chairman: Thank you
for that. Can I move on to Sally Keeble and concordats.
901. Thank you. I think that quite a few
of the questions will be answered when we see a copy of the concordat
which you are sending. Could you say a few things about this?
Do you think that they should be up for public consultation, that
the concordats will deal with relationships between the FSA and
local authorities and so on? Do you think that those should be
put out for public consultation?
(Mr Ashley) Perhaps I can make it clear about
the concordat which we agreed with the Cabinet Office that it
was the Better Regulation Unit of the Cabinet Office and the LGA
which effected this concordat. It was aimed basically at all local
authority and government agency enforcers; it is not just people
in local government, it is people in the Environment Agency, for
example. It was basically a set of good examples and practice
for anybody involved in the business, and serious principles such
as transparency, politeness, etcetera, which were laid out. It
tried also to deal with the balance between enforcement and, if
you wish, taking prosecution on the one hand and, in a sense,
earlier advice on the other, to try to get that particular relationship
which I referred to in an earlier answer as right as we can.
902. Do you think that much of the FSA's
working will depend upon the concordats? Do you think that there
should be some form of consultation, so that the different parties
who have a particular interest in this, including the consumer
groups, should be able to comment on them?
(Mr Ashley) When you referred to concordats which
the FSA may be involved in I was wondering as to what you had
in mind, because I am not aware of them.
903. We are a bit mystified as well, because
these are things which have emerged during the questioning, and
I was hoping that perhaps your concordat would cast some light
on this. It would be helpful to know whether you think there are
going to be mechanisms which determine the way the FSA works,
particularly where those cover the sort of relationships with
organisations which have already had a deep responsibility and
interest in this area and obviously they are involved with it.
Do you think there should be some process of consultation, so
that other stakeholders, as it were, could say, "How about
this?", or "Why don't you try this, it might be new?",
or "We don't like the look of this" or whatever?
(Mr Ashley) I think the simple answer is yes,
that is an absolutely proper principle.
904. Do you think that they should be published?
(Mr Ashley) I can see absolutely no reason why
not. One of the great advantages of the way in which the FSA has
been proposed so far is to be as open as possible with the excellent
principle that advice from scientists to Ministers should be made
public. I think that is a very important precursor to freedom-of-information-type
principles which may follow later.
905. What effect do you think these will
have on public confidence? On the one hand they might be seen
as setting out best-practice procedures which will therefore boost
public confidence, but on the other hand somebody might say, "This
is a cosying up of all the people who have been involved in it
before. We're not very happy about this." Do you see any
implications there? If so, what are they?
(Mr Sherwood) I think it is important that all
the groups involved in food safety, not just the enforcers but
industry and the consumers, as you have rightly mentioned, are
involved in these consultations and in the working groups. I do
not see it as "cosying up", to quote you. I think it
is important to give them an outlet for their concerns and to
give them a say.
906. I was very interested to hear you say
that industry should be involved, because the one thing which
we have been told is that industry would not be involved because
these are relationships between the FSA, local authorities and
such like. Do you think that industry should be involved in those?
(Mr Sherwood) I think the industry should be involved
in liaison on this. I think it would create almost an impenetrable
barrier otherwise. Industry has something to contribute into all
Ms Keeble: Thank you,
that is very helpful.
907. Can I now ask you a question in relation
to the Home Authority Principle. The White Paper suggested that
the present arrangements, which are voluntary, ought to be formalised.
What are your views on the Home Authority Principle? What would
the FSA's role be in this mechanism?
(Mr Cull) The Home Authority Principle, which
has existed now for probably the best part of 20 years, has served
regulation well as a means of trying to drive towards co-ordination.
Presumably you are aware of the basic principles on this, so I
will not go into those. We recognise that it has been an evolving
principle. It started off as a kind of common sense written down,
and now it is time to move it on. It has some shape and form in
it which has been developed over recent years. We are currently
looking at, and will be discussing with colleagues who are in
the joint teams at MAFF/DoH and the business community, the right
way to do it, because there are no right answers to this. We need
to get round in the same room and find out the right way to take
it forward. Certainly local government recognises that it needs
to take it forward now and probably sometimes be a little more
open and robust about those authorities where they do not comply
(Mr Butterworth) Can I follow on from what Nick
Cull was saying on that. It works well in many places throughout
the country, but there are some areas where it has not been adopted
wholeheartedly. There are a number of reasons for that, but you
have to look at some of the authorities which are having difficulty
with it. They are in areas like some London borough where they
are small boroughs but they have a disproportionate number of
commitments; they have a great number of head offices in their
area but they do not get the funds to match those particular commitments.
That is an area which needs to be addressed.
908. I assume that will be addressed in
the discussions you are having with the joint group. Is that one
of the issues?
(Mr Cull) Yes, it is, and I think that all parties
can make comments on that. There is an issue that local government
funding regulation is the most simplistic area here. I think it
is the block grant which gives some money from the revenue support
grant to environmental health and trading standards, and it is
merely allocated on a per capita basis, whereas there are quite
complex formulae in education and social services. I think that
that is too simplistic, as it may be a particular farming issue
or livestock process, so a more generalised response is needed.
909. How do you think the Meat Hygiene Service
(Mr Sherwood) The problem I see with the Meat
Hygiene Service is that it is now a stand-alone group somewhat
remote from the local authorities. Liaison arrangements do exist,
and exchange of information should take place, but that is not
always the case. The other problem is a greater one other than
food safety, in that because it concentrates very specifically
on the hygiene within the particular premises, my own experienceand
I will use my own experiencewhen the local authority dealt
with these matters was that we had joined-up policies on it, in
that the impact of that particular meat plant or whatever on the
community generally was taken into account. I am looking at environmental
considerationssmells, nuisance, etcetera. Of course, you
now have a split, and those issues are thrown onto the local authority
to deal with in utilising pollution powers, environmental protection
910. Do you think it is doing its job, though?
It has done some pretty strange things. Do you think it is sensible
employing 130 Spanish vets some of whom had had only one week's
training and had never worked in an abattoir in their lives?
(Mr Sherwood) It does sound very worrying. I have
something of a vested interest here, having been in charge of
the Meat Inspection Service for some ten years prior to the advent
of the Meat Hygiene Service. I do realise the difficulties which
they had in setting up from nowhere to come in and take over,
despite the fact that they were taking on board certain expertise
from the authorities and from the ministries. Things are improving,
there is no question about that, and I read with interest the
reports of the improvements which are taking place in the scorings
of the premises, but ....
911. You are being very guarded.
912. Is our meat safer and are they working
better with the industry than they did when they started?
(Mr Sherwood) I actually believe what we are told
that we possibly have the safest meat in Europe in this country,
that the measures that have come out over the last ten years have
brought that about and the enforcement of those and I certainly
believe that we do have the best meat.
913. Do you think it is sensible to put
the MHS under the Food Standards Agency?
(Mr Sherwood) I actually sat and listened to the
earlier answer from the environmental health representative that
there was scrutiny provided for it in the proposed sections 14
914. I took issue with that because the
reply from the veterinary gentleman was that there would be two
sides to the Food Standards Agency. One side would be happily
beavering away and enforcing and then the other side would be
a totally separate office and would be monitoring away. There
is nothing in the Bill that says that, but it just says that there
will be an annual report. Obviously you have got my view that
it is very badly compromised in that if something goes wrong in
the Meat Hygiene Service, it is actually being policed by the
Food Standards Agency. It is a very substantial quango with very
large funds, which will generate large funds for the Food Standards
Agency, and I do not think it will able to be audited in an independent
manner. What do you think?
(Mr Sherwood) They certainly both appear to be
within the same area to me, the way I read that, but I take the
answer that they have given, that that is the case. It certainly
looks as if the Meat Hygiene Service is, shall we call it, an
arm's length part of the proposed Food Standards Agency and how
long that arm's length is or will be I cannot tell at this time.
915. Nor can I because it is not in the
(Mr Cull) I think that the relationship that I
hope will develop between the Agency and local government will
have that right element of checks and balances that you are perhaps
916. Are you happy that the FSA is both
enforcing and monitoring?
(Mr Cull) I am not sure I can really comment on
the Meat Hygiene Service because it is not within my knowledge
base, but personally I have always thought that one model for
an agency is to be the standard-setter and the monitor and that
clarity and crispness of role which it will have with local government,
I hope, and with all its powers in the Bill to take action where
local government does not deliver is the right sort of relationship
917. What about the PSD and the VMD staying
under MAFF? Are you happy with that?
(Mr Butterworth) I think what matters is what
works and to some extent it is how the Food Standards Agency communicates
with the VMD and the PSD. I think in all of this we seem to have
brought together a number of marriages of convenience, if you
like, because if you were going to apply uniformity and consistency,
you would say, "Well, if the Meat Hygiene Service fits comfortably
as an enforcement agency within the FSA, well why don't local
authority responsibilities as well?", but local authorities
have been left to discharge those responsibilities and it just
seems to be a case of, "Well, the Meat Hygiene Service was
already there, so why don't we leave it there?". But there
might come a point in time when I think these sort of issues are
brought to a head and I know my Institute have said in the past
that it is unhappy with the task of the Food Standards Agency
being an enforcement authority.
918. Could I ask this very briefly to the
Local Government Association. You said that you believe that it
will be necessary to amend the 1990 Act to assist the enforcement
process. I wonder if you could tell us briefly what that is likely
(Mr Ashley) I am not sure that I actually said
that. I think the point I was making was that the 1990 Act following
a number of years where there were a number of serious food scares
was perhaps an earlier moment when it was decided generally that
it was right to have a more robust food law regime and an enforcement
regime and a lot of work was done in producing, I think, some
basically well regarded food codes at that time. The difficulty
that I pointed to was that a number of years later under the previous
Government, the deregulatory campaign or push then suggested that
the pendulum be pushed away from rigorous enforcement towards
greater emphasis on advice and a light touch, so-called, on enforcement
and I think the only point I was trying to make there was that
that did lead to genuine confusion, I think, in the enforcement
community as to what was being expected of them. There were some
tough standards, but an expectation of light enforcement. I think
that what everybody needs more than anything else hereand
it is a particular form of consistencyis a clear indication
as to roughly where to pitch the balance, and then for that to
remain for a period of time, so that industry, local authorities
and the consumers can all expect a period of stability in what
they can properly expect out of the central government and local
government system of food enforcement.
919. Mr Cull, did you wish to add anything?
(Mr Cull) Very briefly, there are a number of
areasthey are in some sense quite detailed, but they are
very important areaswhere local authorities have commented
because they have been enforcing for a number of years now, for
the best part of a decade, where changes of definition, for example,
should be easier for definitions of food premises or food business
leading to registration. We are channelling those through our
response. They are partnership-type issues, but nevertheless they
are quite important.
920. Thank you. Can I finally ask you, do
you have any knowledge of any international experience which the
Food Standards Agency should draw on in terms of setting off on
this road of bringing it into being? Have you looked at any models
of enforcement from different parts of the world or even within
(Mr Butterworth) I think that all we do know is
that in Southern Ireland they seem to be one step ahead of us
to some extent, but whether they have got it right is another
921. Could I thank you very much indeed
for joining us on our last public evidence-gathering session.
With regard to the things which I asked you to send through, Mr
Cull, we would appreciate it if that were done pretty quickly.
(Mr Cull) Yes indeed.
Chairman: Could I
thank you for your attendance. Could I also thank our colleagues
here from the Joint Food Safety and Standards Group for their
attendance at this Committee's hearings. It has been quite an
instructive thing for all of us, certainly for yourselves and
for Members of Parliament as well. Could I thank you and your
colleagues who are not here this afternoon for your participation
in this. Thank you very much indeed.