Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 900 - 921)

MONDAY 15 MARCH 1999

MR MICHAEL ASHLEY, MR NICK CULL, MR RON SHERWOOD, MR STEVE BUTTERWORTH, MR BOB 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.

Ms Keeble

  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 these discussions.

Ms Keeble:  Thank you, that is very helpful.

Chairman

  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 with it.
  (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.

Mr Paterson

  909.  How do you think the Meat Hygiene Service is working?
  (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 experience—and I will use my own experience—when 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 considerations—smells, 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 legislation, etcetera.

  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.
  (Mr Sherwood)  

Extremely.

  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 and 15.

  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 Bill.
  (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 talking about.

  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 to have.

  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.

Chairman

  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 to mean.
  (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 here—and it is a particular form of consistency—is 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 areas—they are in some sense quite detailed, but they are very important areas—where 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 the EU?
  (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 matter.

  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.


 
previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 12 April 1999