Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 125)




  120. The Agriculture Committee intends to do an inquiry into the research conclusions or implications of the Phillips Report and into the way research is proceeding. We may well see each other again. How do you liaise with ministers? Who talks to who?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I have regular meetings with Gisela Stuart in the Department of Health who is the junior minister with accountability for the FSA in Parliament. In the devolved authorities, I meet or correspond with the health ministers, Bairbre de Brun in Belfast and Susan Deacon in Scotland and Jane Hutt in Cardiff. I also meet fairly regularly with ministers in MAFF, either because we have particular items to discuss or just generally to keep in touch. I think those would be the main regular ministerial contacts that I have. They are in the form of keeping in contact so that they know where we are moving and I know the issues that are on their minds.

  121. When you provide advice to ministers, do ministers receive that advice first of all in draft form which is discussed with them and then may subsequently be revised?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Not normally. We would just submit advice in a written form and generally, as a matter of normal practice, our advice is available on our website. The advice may be strictly in the form that it went to the minister or it may be in a slightly recast form, to put it in a broader context so that the public can understand what was going on.

  122. As far as you are aware, all advice has been published either by you or by the relevant minister?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) By us on our website.
  (Mr Podger) We are not aware of the substance of any advice we are offered which is not publicly available. That is the test we apply. We would not want to get into a position where the substance of our advice was not publicly available.

  123. You are independent and we have all made a great virtue of your independence but nonetheless your main interlocutory has to be the government. The actual processes of transmission you must be anxious to ensure are very transparent. Otherwise, the whole purpose of the exercise becomes rather cloudy.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes.

  124. Finally, right at the very start you said that your job is to tee up to ministers the advice; that they may well have to then take a decision as to whether they accept it or not, or there may be other factors they have to balance. I suppose the key issue on something like implications of advice of other relevance—for example, the read over of advice about beef products and possible implications for trade in sheep and lamb, must be something ministers have to take into consideration. You have from time to time been accused of drifting into the political arena and you have caused a great deal of what we in Yorkshire call how's your father with some remarks about organic. Where do you draw the line? Do you have a mentor who says, "Hang on, John. Let's be careful on this one"?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I am accused variously of drifting too much into the political arena and behaving too much like a pointy headed scientist, so it is hard to know which bit I am getting wrong. Perhaps both. To touch very briefly on the specifics of the organic statement we made, it was sometimes represented as an attack on organic food and a statement that the Food Standard Agency's view was that organic food was bad. It was not that at all. It was simply a summary of what is the current state of scientific knowledge about the health benefits of organic food. Our summary did not really differ from the views of the Consumer Association, from the British Nutrition Foundation who looked at it, from the Advertising Standards Authority who, as you know, looked at it.

  125. The RASE has just published a compilation. They brought together some of the leading scientists to examine the claims stacked against conventional and integrated farming.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I would like to see that. We did not touch on the environmental side, whether there are potential benefits from a move away from traditional, intensive practice. You ask me do I have a mentor to guide me as to where to position myself. I have a variety of colleagues with whom I discuss things, not least the members of the board who are very outspoken and discipline me on a regular basis.

  Chairman: Since we are now drawing up our report on organics, we expect that to be the definitive document. Sir John and Mr Podger, thank you very much indeed. We have had a very long session. It has been a very productive session. As always, it has been what I prefer, a conversation more than a confrontation. I suspect we will be seeing each other again. We look forward to that.

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