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European Standing Committee Debates

Simplification of Legislation on Transport Rates and Food Hygiene

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Janet Anderson
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
Ellman, Mrs. Louise (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)
Flint, Caroline (Minister of State, Department of Health)
Gibson, Dr. Ian (Norwich, North) (Lab)
Gidley, Sandra (Romsey) (LD)
Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
McIsaac, Shona (Cleethorpes) (Lab)
Pugh, Dr. John (Southport) (LD)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Emily Commander, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Standing Committee

Monday 11 June 2007

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Simplification of Legislation on Transport Rates and Food Hygiene

4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Caroline Flint): It is the Government’s view that reducing administrative burdens on business is an important aim, and we wholeheartedly and actively support it. At the same time, we also support proportionate measures to protect public health. We believe that such measures already exist in respect of food hygiene, and we therefore consider that the proposal in its present form does not strike an appropriate balance between food safety and burden reduction.
That view has been consistently echoed by the full range of food industry and enforcement stakeholders, a number of whom I understand have written to the Committee to underline their concerns. I received a letter today from Julian Hunt, the director of communications for the Food and Drink Federation, supporting our view as well.
The current legislation has applied since 1 January 2006. At its heart is the principle that food businesses are responsible for producing food safety. They do so by complying with good hygiene practice and maintaining a planned approach to managing food safety hazards. That is the legal requirement for food safety management procedures based on hazard analysis and critical control point, or HACCP, principles. Controls are to be proportionate to food safety hazards while avoiding unnecessary burdens on food business operators and enforcement bodies.
The Government recognise fully the need to support food businesses in managing food safety, especially smaller businesses, so many of which supply food to our consumers. Through the Food Standards Agency, we are helping to inform and educate about food safety hazards and how they can be controlled. Looking at the members of this Committee, I see a number in whose constituencies small businesses have received grants to support implementation of the current legislation through the safer food, better business initiative promoted by the FSA, which is providing support through local authorities to hundreds of thousands of small businesses to help them to meet legislative requirements. I understand that that approach has been well received by food businesses and enforcers, and it provides for the flexibility that the Government feel is available within the present legislation.
The Commission has said that the legislation’s flexibility has not been used widely across the EU, although we believe that it is being used in this country to good effect. The proposal therefore aims to minimise burdens further without reducing levels of public health protection. We support that aim, but we believe along with many others that the proposal does not strike the right balance in exempting businesses from food safety management requirements on the arbitrary basis of their size. For the proposal to be acceptable to the UK, it must require all food businesses to control any hazards to food safety in a managed way. Any proposals for exemptions should reflect the lower level of risk that some food handling and business activities may present to food safety.
Discussions in the Council working party have indicated that the majority of member states support us in that analysis. It is right that the impact of regulatory requirements on businesses, especially small businesses, should be scrutinised and opportunities to remove unnecessary burdens taken. It is also right that proportionate controls to protect public health should not be undermined or dismantled arbitrarily. Clearly, a balance must be struck and the need to establish that goes right to the heart of the Government’s approach to the proposal that is reflected in the motion.
The Chairman: We now have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind members of the Committee that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all hon. Members to ask several questions.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I have not taken part in a European Standing Committee for a while, so I hope that I remember the procedure. I have a list of questions to ask the Minister because there is consensus about the concern that the measure might be going too far. I endorse the hon. Lady’s comments about wanting to deregulate. It is nice to have European legislation that is about taking away regulations rather than adding to them. However, that must be balanced with the safety of food-purveying establishments and ultimately the safety of our constituents.
For the purposes of clarification, I shall to pose a few questions to the Minister and I wish to start with where we are in the process. I am a little confused about the timetable of what is coming from where; what has to come back from us by when and who will ultimately decide what. The date of 21 May is given in one of the explanatory notes about when the measure was discussed. Are we behind or ahead of other European nations in their submissions? The hon. Lady recently sent out a consultation document in the United Kingdom and it might be useful to have the timetable.
The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. He said that he has a list of questions. I should be grateful if he would ask them one at a time so that the Minister has an opportunity to respond.
Tim Loughton: I was not sure whether I would have a repeat attempt to ask questions. I will be jumping up and down in that case, so I shall leave matters to the Minister.
Caroline Flint: The UK line is subject to agreement by the European Parliament Committee. As I said in my opening contribution, we have already entered into discussion with other member states on our concerns about the present proposals. On 21 May, after further discussions at the Council working party of veterinary experts in public health, there was a blocking minority of member states in relation to any proposal to change the current legislation. The presidency said that it would put the dossier to the Committee of Permanent Representatives in the next two to three weeks.
The deadline for ministerial responses to the EP correspondence has been slightly extended to cope with new devolved administrations and on 25 May there was a further update for stakeholders on the FSA website. At present, we hope that a round-up letter from the Foreign Secretary conveying the Government’s agreement to our negotiating line will be available shortly. We had hoped that it might be available before the scrutiny debate, but we are not at that point as yet.
Discussion will then take place. It will show how the proposal will be taken forward and clarify when it might come before a meeting of the Council. That, in turn, may lead to clarity over its handling by the European Parliament. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are not out of time on this issue. The particular proposal has created a buzz of activity not only in this country, but elsewhere. I am happy to write to him to give him a clearer outline of matters if I have not done so in my answer.
Tim Loughton: On what empirical evidence are the proposals based? The legislation is aimed at macro-businesses, as they are termed, which employ fewer than 10 people. Does the Minister have evidence and has the Commission produced evidence to show that such businesses are no more dangerous in terms of food safety than others, because I suspect that it is other way round?
Caroline Flint: We are not convinced by the evidence of the Commission in that regard. We believe that aspects of food safety should be considered on a risk assessment basis that is not of itself dependent on the size of an organisation. In the United Kingdom, food produced in establishments that employ fewer than10 employees was responsible for at least 60 per cent. of the outbreaks of food-borne disease during January 2000 to March 2005. That particular sector of the market can present itself in many forms, particularly if we bear in mind those small units that diversify to provide food alongside other products. Some newsagents, for example, sell sandwiches, hot food and takeaways. The market is quite diverse. Some butchers sell raw meat alongside cooked meats, sandwiches and other things. The Government think that the matter is important; the sector is important and we would be concerned if it was removed. As I said in my opening remarks, we feel that the changes to the original legislation, which mean that circumstances are based on requirements, provide adequate flexibility. We have proved that by the way in which we have gone about the matter in this country. We are hoping to share our approach with the Commission and others to show European member states that are overly prescriptive have something to learn from the UK model.
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I have two questions. Somewhere between Ipswich and Stowmarket this morning—one has a lot of time on the train from Norwich to London these days because of fatalities or slow trains—I read the word “morganisation”. I cannot find the word in the document now, but will the Minister tell me what it means? I have never before seen the word but I saw it in the document and I would be grateful if she could define it—I am always interested to learn new words.
The major point that I wanted to make concerns the safer food better business model referred to in annex B. The FSA has developed SFBB packs for Chinese and Indian cuisines, which will be launched shortly. There are many other cuisines besides Chinese and Indian. What is being done about developing packs and information for suppliers of those foods?
Caroline Flint: I am happy to write to my hon. Friend on the term “morganisation”. Should I be given any information on it in the Committee, I shall pass it on in my closing remarks.
I take my hon. Friend’s point about the identification of packs that focus on Chinese and Indian food and I shall make sure that his comments are passed on to the FSA to see whether there are other types of cuisine, such as Thai, that could be covered. We are fortunate to live in a country in which we have access to the foods of the world. There is no reason why those foods cannot be provided and safely enjoyed, as millions of us do every day.
The initiative has been constructively received by firms, local authorities and trade associations as one of the ways in which we can approach the matter proportionately, while being mindful of the safety of the public in relation to public health concerns about food.
Tim Loughton: If small businesses of fewer than10 employees are exempt from the HACCP regulations, does the Minister think that they will be under less of an obligation to train their staff in food safety management? Is she satisfied that there are other safeguards in place?
Caroline Flint: As far as I am aware, there would still be a requirement on the firms to which the hon. Gentleman referred to have attention to hygiene. I understand that that, in and of itself, is not affected by the measures. However, the responsibility of the businesses to look at the potential hazards of introducing food delivery and services is affected. That is slightly different from approaching the matter from a food hygiene point of view. The concern is that, although there should be flexibility, an arbitrary slicing at 10 employees is simply a number-crunching exercise, and not about food safety or the responsibility of businesses to think carefully about the consequences, for example, of selling both raw and cooked meats. Firms should think about how such services can be delivered while reducing hazards to public health. That is the worry. It does not mean that there are no other aspects of responsibility for food hygiene to which businesses must attend. We feel that the message that is being sent out is disproportionate and, potentially, very dangerous.
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): What representations did the Minister receive from small businesses regarding the burden of HACCP regulations before the Commission introduced its proposals?
Caroline Flint: Many stakeholders have expressed serious concern, primarily through the Food Standards Agency, that food safety would be compromised by this proposal, and that moving away from a risk-based approach to one based on business size could not be justified on public health grounds. That view came from the enforcement community—local authorities and environmental health officers—and was endorsed by the Federation of Small Businesses, the Food and Drink Federation and the British Retail Consortium.
As far as I am aware, the proposal came out of left field. I do not think that people expected it, which is why it has created such a flurry of activity and attention. The legislation that we are implementing has not been around long, and we hoped that before tweaking it we could get the present legislation right. For example, the Food and Drink Federation, the British Hospitality Association, the British Retail Consortium, the National Farmers Union, Dairy UK, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, Which? and Foodaware, the consumers’ food group, have also made their point collectively: that while they recognise the need for a flexible approach to the HACCP for small businesses, they believe that sufficient flexibility was negotiated by the Food Standards Agency and is therefore already incorporated within current EU hygiene legislation.
The Forum of Private Business’s views were sought in April this year and said:
“The current proposal we feel is fatally flawed in that it appears to remove the necessity for risk assessment, the size criterion is unacceptable and is impracticable in reality. It would lead to so much confusion among both enforcers and business that standards of hygiene could be compromised.”
I hope that that sufficiently answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Dr. Gibson: Has the Minister considered the episode of bird flu when there was transmission from Hungary by some mechanism or mechanisms unknown? Are we loosening the regulations to the extent that anything can be transported without really knowing whether there is an inherent danger? There is still a danger of bird flu and animal viruses being moved from one part of the world, particularly Europe in this case, to this country. Is that being considered in terms of loosening the regulations?
Caroline Flint: I do not think that the motion is directly linked to the concern that my hon. Friend expresses. However, as we saw in the incident at Bernard Matthews not so long ago, there was a lot of discussion about the transference of poultry products across the European Union. I do not think that the regulations are pertinent to that, but I am happy to write to my hon. Friend about that and how we are working with DEFRA and others throughout the European Union to examine the whole issue of bird flu and its transference, the transportation of live poultry and so on, and its potential impact. We must also be mindful of the fact that we cannot control wild birds, and that is why we must have mechanisms to tackle the problem.
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): I had the dubious pleasure of studying directive 93/43 when I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, and the subsequent regulations for both the Food Standards Agency Scotland and the English Food Standards Agency, so I was delighted when this document crossed my desk.
Given that the regulations from the Food Standards Agency already affect UK-based businesses, and will continue to do so even if the directive were abolished—it is secondary legislation set up by the Food Standards Agency—is the Minister saying that the only threat to food hygiene would come from imports from other European countries’ food processors if they did not have such a stringent domestic regime in place? My understanding is that even if we abolished the regulation, we have domestic regulations in place that would protect food standards, so abolition would affect only imports.
Caroline Flint: I am not suggesting that we abolish the current legislation. We are talking about adding to the existing legislation a caveat that removes responsibility for those particular hazard control procedures from businesses that employ fewer than 10 people. There are sound reasons for ensuring that, as far as possible, we encourage a proportionate but healthy approach to food management and services across the European Union and for trying to create a baseline of standards; our own people go on holiday and work in such countries.
I am not quite sure whether I have understood the hon. Gentleman’s question correctly, but we are arguing against the Commission’s proposal, which we feel is unnecessary in terms of the legislation that we have currently signed up to on the books. I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman again if I have not quite understood his question.
Mr. Wallace: In my reading, the proposal from the European Commission is to make businesses of a certain size exempt from article 3(2) of directive 93/43. That is to exempt them from a European directive, not from UK secondary legislation that is in place and enforced by the FSA. Therefore, should the exemption still go ahead at the EU level? Our regulations would still be in place. Therefore, the only threat to British consumers would come from imports from a European country that does not have such strict food standards legislation domestically. Is that the understanding and, if so, are there any particular countries that we should be concerned about?
Caroline Flint: My understanding is that it would apply to all EU small businesses, selling mainly direct to consumers. That is why the issue is so important. It would affect across the piece.
Tim Loughton: Have the proposals come in isolation? Does the Minister think that the legislation will pave the way for the Commission to make more changes to food safety regulations?
Caroline Flint: The proposals come from a legitimate course of action, in which we tried to fast-track some proposals—not just in the area of food—to minimise unnecessary burdens on businesses. That was just one idea out of 10 suggestions, but it is the one we are discussing today in terms of food hygiene. We do not have a problem with the other proposals, including the one on transport. Some of the suggestions in those areas made sense, such as avoiding document duplication. That is not the debate today, but I just wanted to highlight one example out of the 10 proposals. It is this proposal that concerns the Department of Health, the FSA and others, because we do not feel that it will achieve what the Commission wants. We have other voices on our side, not only in this country but across Europe. That is what I understand is the case for this particular suggestion. It is a package of 10 proposals aimed at better regulation and reducing burdens on business.
Mr. Wilson: What evidence does the Minister have that the Commission’s proposal to exempt small businesses would lead to an increase in food-borne illnesses?
Caroline Flint: I informed the Committee earlier the extent to which smaller businesses are responsible for the number of food-borne illnesses. I think that I mentioned that something like 60 per cent. of the outbreaks of food-borne disease during January 2000 to March 2005 came from establishments employing fewer than 10 workers. They came from that sector of the market. Again, it is not just the Department of Health or the Government, but many other stakeholders who are very concerned about the arbitrary cut-off point at 10 employees. What happens to establishments that have 11 or 12 employees? That was one of the points made by the Forum of Private Business. We are concerned about the message that it sends out about having a cut-off point based on size, rather than a risk assessment.
Organisations employing fewer than 10 employees may be safe because of the nature of their business and organisation. A local authority might feel that such an organisation needs little attention because of established practices over a number of years, but it might think that other organisations with fewer than 10 employees, and organisations with many more, need a rather more hands-on approach in respect of how they are running their business. That is where the risk assessment is important. There needs to be some room for manoeuvre in respect of how that is done, and how flexibly it is done, for local authorities and their enforcement agencies to use their professionalism in an appropriately proportionate way.
Tim Loughton: The seven HACCP principles in annexe A strike me as rather nefarious. I was slightly surprised by that. Just to give an example, the first principle is,
“Identifying any hazards that must be prevented, eliminated or reduced to acceptable levels”.
That could mean leaving the fridge door open for meat products. The second principle is,
“Identifying the critical control points at the step or steps which control is essential to prevent or eliminate a hazard or to reduce it to acceptable levels”.
That could be remembering to close the fridge door. The third,
“Establishing critical limits at critical control points which separate acceptability from unacceptability for the prevention, elimination or reduction of identified hazards”,
could mean putting a notice up, saying “Don’t forget to close the fridge door.” Am I being overly simplistic? Are these principles actually doing the job for which they are designed or has some bureaucrat just invented them, with everybody going through the motions even though the principles are not serving a purpose?
Caroline Flint: That is why the work was done with the FSA to produce the packs to support smaller businesses and to try to remove possible misinterpretation of the principles. Also, I understand that flexibility was built into the original legislation, with the FSA’s negotiating position being that activity should be based on principles regarding health and safety hazards in relation to food. The packs produced by the FSA, and the grants that it is providing to a number of local authorities to engage particularly with their small business sector, in its many forms, are intended to ensure that there is understanding about flexibility. Common sense should apply. Sometimes, however, the work cannot be done by producing documents and it has to be a combination of straightforward guidance and hands-on support locally by the relevant agencies.
I agree that there needs to be a simple, straightforward interpretation. That is what the FSA has been doing, through its work with local authorities. I understand that the feedback from the industry on this matter has, to all intents and purposes, been positive. That is why there is no reason for any changes at this time.
Mr. Wallace: Further to the questions I have asked the Minister, the £68 million that is quoted as a potential saving to small businesses, should they be exempt, is not broken down sufficiently for us to say what proportion of that sum comprises an extra burden from FSA regulations and the basic requirement of the directive. As is so often the case, the directive is fairly objective based and deals with what to achieve, rather than with prescriptive measures. Will the Minister enter into the spirit of trying to reduce the burden on small business and commit herself to finding out whether FSA regulations on small business are a bit too excessive and, perhaps, bring them down in line with the aims of the directive?
Caroline Flint: The FSA, particularly over the past year, has been in discussions with our better regulation unit to look at different aspects of its work and how we can ensure that, although it is tackling a huge public concern about food safety in this country, the actions taken are proportionate and are meaningful to different sectors, no matter how small or large. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with more detailed information about how the FSA is taking that work forward and will follow up, if there is the opportunity, on any issues to do with costs on business from activities relating to the FSA.
The Chairman: If no more hon. Members wish to ask questions, we will now proceed to the debate on the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 7371/07 and Addenda 1-4, Draft Regulation amending Regulation No. 11 concerning the abolition of discrimination in transport rates and conditions in implementation of Article 79(3) of the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community and Regulation (EC) No. 852/2004 of the European Parliament and the Council on the hygiene of foodstuffs; and supports the Government's view that attempts to reduce administrative burdens on food businesses are to be welcomed, but should not compromise public health protection.—[Caroline Flint.]
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at one minute to Five o’clock.

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