Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Food Standards Agency

4.35 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1080

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1081

    Ministers but will also work closely with the other departments of government that have an interest in its work. This will include the Ministry of Agriculture, which will retain responsibility for sponsorship of the food industry. The agency will routinely publish the basis for its advice. This will ensure that the public interest is clearly being served when policy decisions are taken and regulations proposed. The appropriate Select Committees of both Houses would of course be able to call the chair of the commission and the agency's chief executive to give evidence.

    "The particular interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be fully covered. The Food Standards Agency will be responsible for advising the Government on the UK policy framework on food standards and safety matters. However, we recognise that issues of particular interest to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland arise. We therefore propose that new, independent advisory committees will be formed in each of these countries to provide a focus for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish interests in food standards, and to advise the agency's commission and the respective Secretaries of State, or their successors from a devolved parliament or assembly. We will also establish Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish executives within the UK agency to take responsibility for the existing food safety and standards functions carried out by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices.

    "The agency will need to be properly resourced. The White Paper makes clear that the Government intend to pursue new methods of raising some of the necessary expenditure from the food sector. We intend to consult closely with all those who would be affected, including, of course, the small business sector, in drawing up our detailed proposals.

    "The publication of this White Paper is the commencement of the next phase of public debate. Establishing an agency with such important, wide-ranging responsibilities is a complex process. We will again be consulting with interested parties across the food chain, to ensure that the Food Standards Agency will work effectively in practice and command respect from all those who have an interest in its work. The White Paper is being circulated widely for comment today. My right honourable friends and I look forward to discussing the way forward with all stakeholders over the coming weeks.

    "The responses to this consultation will inform the drafting of the Bill to establish the agency. The draft Bill will be circulated for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny later this year. The Bill will be brought before Parliament as soon as the legislative programme permits. In the meantime, the Government are already putting the principles by which the agency will operate into practice. We will continue to ensure that the period of transition is managed successfully. We propose in particular to begin to put into place the agency's governing body on a shadow basis at an appropriate stage in the passage of the legislation through Parliament.

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1082

    "Today's White Paper contains a radical, coherent, responsible set of proposals for delivering one of our most important manifesto commitments. The Food Standards Agency will constitute a force that is dedicated to working systematically and constructively with all who are involved with the supply of food to the consumer to ensure better food safety standards. The time for change is long overdue. I commend our proposals to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.44 p.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement which announces these important proposals for establishing a new Food Standards Agency. Let me begin by saying that we very much welcome the emphasis which the Government are placing on safeguarding the interests of consumers. There is absolutely no doubt that shortcomings in food safety, originating from all stages of the food chain, have become a source of increasing concern in recent years as is evidenced by the rising trend in reported cases of food poisoning.

The irony is that that trend has occurred at a time when technology has greatly assisted the food industry in improving standards of food hygiene and at a time when both food production and food retailing have been subject to ever-tighter regimes of regulation. As a former MAFF Minister, I know from my dealings with the food industry and the major UK retailers that for them food quality is of paramount importance. At the same time, both MAFF and the Department of Health have never been more active in promoting food safety to the consumer. Yet despite all that, throughout the UK food pathogens and in particular the prime culprits salmonella, campylobacter and e-coli 157 are continuing to cause an unacceptable incidence of human illness and even in the worst cases of death.

That is the broad background against which the Government have published their proposals. It would be quite wrong of me not to wish the new agency well in its work once it is up and running. I certainly do so. But I believe that unless the right safeguards are put in place the agency will start off with a number of serious handicaps. The first of these relates to its remit and accountability.

We are told that the agency will put consumers first. As a guiding objective that is fine, but we all know that in setting standards a balance always needs to be struck between the interests of consumers and those of the industry; between regulation and the cost of regulation; between enforcement and common sense. Where will responsibility lie for striking that balance? If it is to lie with the agency, what assurance do we have that the agency's judgment will not be unreasonably skewed towards the consumer? Yet if in the most significant areas of policy on food safety responsibility is to lie, as it has done hitherto, with Ministers, how will that situation differ from current practice? If Ministers are still to be responsible for such decision-making, what are we to make of the agency's policy of openness in being free to publish the advice that it gives to

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1083

government? We are all aware that there is nothing so damaging to the food industry as a food scare, and the worst type of food scare is one which is unfounded both in science and in fact.

Openness is to be encouraged, but there is a danger in allowing an unfettered freedom to publish advice to Ministers on matters which are, in the sense I have indicated, of high public sensitivity and which bear closely on policy-making. It may well inhibit commercial organisations from disclosing information that is classified as commercial and in confidence. Can the Minister clarify that point?

Can she also clarify a related area of uncertainty; namely, the way in which the agency is to be made accountable to Parliament? If it is really to be an independent agency in much of what it does from day to day, to whom is it ultimately answerable and in what way, particularly if, as the Statement makes explicit, it has the power to overrule the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if it so chooses?

The Statement makes an interesting comment at page 2 where it says that the agency will ensure,

    "that people have the information they need to make proper choices for themselves about the food they eat".

I wonder what is the significance of that passage. Can the Minister say how that principle would have applied to the decision as to whether to ban beef on the bone? Who would have taken that decision? If the decision had been left to the agency it appears that an outright ban would not have occurred, but rather that consumers would have been given the information to make the necessary choices for themselves. Can the Minister comment on that?

I also believe that the agency is likely to be handicapped by public expectation. There will be a gap between what it is able to achieve and what the public expect of it. We know that approximately 44 per cent. of outbreaks of food poisoning originate from meals bought in restaurants, hotels and similar catering establishments. What control will the agency exercise over environmental health officers who are at present employed by local authorities, or will the agency's enforcement role run parallel to that of the EHOs?

By contrast, domestic catering accounts for some 17 per cent. of food poisoning outbreaks. The messages which inform consumers how to prevent food poisoning in the home cannot be repeated too often, but ultimately these are matters to which consumers themselves must attend. Despite the best efforts of MAFF and the Department of Health in running campaigns to educate the public, the incidence of food poisoning arising from inadequate storage, handling and cooking remains persistently high. Is the agency to take over that educational function from central departments? In other words, will its advisory role be an active one rather than simply reactive? In particular, will it take over the task of disseminating food hygiene education in schools?

We are told that the agency will be charged with the responsibility of giving the public information on the nutrient content of food. The Department of Health will give advice on diet and health. The Government may say that that will not in any way impinge on an

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1084

individual's freedom to choose what food to eat, but the risk is that such advice may be taken in isolation; for example, advice on individual foods as opposed to on diet in the round. Nutrition is not an exact science. There is a body of scientific knowledge on nutrition, but it is not by any means comprehensive. I am worried about any proposal which extends the "nanny state". My impression is that that aspect of the White Paper does not command the support of the food industry or the retailers. I wonder whether the Minister could confirm that impression.

Finally, there is the important question of cost. There must be a doubt, in the light of what seems to me to be an inherent difficulty in separating the agency's responsibilities from those of Ministers, about whether the benefits of establishing the FSA really will outweigh the costs of doing so. What are the annual costs likely to be? Can the Minister confirm the Government's determination to maximise value for money by ensuring that the costs of administering the agency are low in relation to its overall budget? Are we to understand that, on enforcement, the agency will have the power to channel additional resources to environmental health officers? More generally, how much of the bill for the agency will industry, and hence consumers, be expected to pay? If licensing and fees are to be the order of the day, what is to stop this becoming an open-ended system of funding whatever the agency chooses to spend money on from year to year? I do not see how the system can be seen as anything other than a tax on food by the back-door. That being so, how will Parliament have control of the level of such a tax?

No doubt there is much discussion ahead of us on these important issues and I welcome the Government's decision to lay them open to wide consultation. I look forward to the Minister's reply and to our further debates on the White Paper in the months ahead.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I welcome the Minister's Statement repeating that made by her colleague in another place. Those concerned with food and its effect on health 50 or 100 years ago would have been concerned about food availability. It is a measure of how things have changed for the better in our part of the world that we can now be concerned about food safety.

It seems to my colleagues and I that there are three important elements to this matter: the questions of standards, of confidence and of responsibility. First, on the question of standards, there is a balance to be struck. There sometimes seems to be a sense in the community that standards in such matters can be absolute and that there can be complete protection from all possible vagaries. But that is not the case. One could suggest that one could protect oneself from all the vagaries of life by refusing to go outside the front-door of one's home, but the adverse consequences on one's social and intellectual development would be considerable, to say the least. We must accept that, particularly when one is a little venturesome in the matter of food, various problems may arise.

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1085

Nevertheless, standards must be maintained and developed, and as things change, the existing standards may have to be made more stringent. Therefore, we welcome the notion that there should be an agency to address the question of standards. We also welcome the fact that it is to be removed from the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food because there is a sense of anxiety that there might be some temptation on the part of those who have responsibility for agriculture as an industry and for the food industry more generally to ignore some safety matters when they come to the fore.

I say that that is how people sometimes see things, but that does not necessarily mean that that is the case. In my part of the world, for example, the stringent requirements on which the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland has insisted have ensured that once the European Union accepts that a certified herd scheme will ensure that the exporting of British beef can begin again--we hope that that will be soon--it will be the farmers of Northern Ireland who will benefit most quickly. That will be exactly because our Department of Agriculture has always been so stringent with regard to the tracing of herds. That is why the public assumption that the agriculture industry and the food industry in general will be soft on the question of standards is often unfair, but people do see it in that way.

That leads me to the question of confidence, which has been so much lacking recently. That lack of confidence is not simply because there is sometimes a suspicion that people are too reticent to speak about the dangers; it arises sometimes because we are too quick to speak of the dangers. I believe that in the recent past Ministers have sometimes been so fearful of it being said that they kept things secret that they have immediately jumped to publish the latest speculation on a possible theoretical scare before there has been any demonstrable evidence. That has led to all manner of difficulties--not only to difficulties for the industry, but also to difficulties for consumers who do not know exactly how they should respond.

The idea of having independent commissioners is very welcome, as is the fact that they will not simply be moved from one ministerial department (such as agriculture) to another (such as health) because there is to be a degree of independence. That means that we shall not move simply from one pillar to another post, and it should create a degree of independence of thought.

Thirdly, there is the question of responsibility. People sometimes come to believe that the Government should solve every problem in their lives. They can come to believe that whenever a problem arises, it is because the Government or someone in responsibility has failed to do something. With regard to the incidence of food poisoning to which the noble Earl referred, the truth is that the responsibility sometimes rests with others (whether the standards agencies or those producing the food for the public), but I believe that that problem sometimes arises because people are not attentive enough to the way in which they prepare and keep food. That is why I welcome the notion that a relatively

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1086

independent agency might be able not only to respond to the concerns of the agriculture and food industries, but that it may also be able to meet the health requirements. However, I hope that the Minister will agree that education has an important part to play and that the new degree of independence might help us to build relationships with that ministry.

Finally, I commend the Government on recognising that there are, and are likely to continue to be, differences in the different component parts of the United Kingdom. That has been properly recognised both in terms of the membership of the board of commissioners and in the advisory committees that are to be set up.

I strongly suggest that the Government consider whether the new body should be regarded simply as a "food standards agency" as opposed to a "food safety agency". It is not a question only of standards in terms of what the Government require and what the public agencies and the industry will observe; it is also a matter of all of us in the community being aware of food safety. We do not do the public a service if we suggest to them that the food produced for them is so safe that they do not need to pay any attention to the way in which they handle it after purchase. In that sense to say, "Ours is a 100 per cent. standard", sometimes removes from people the belief that they need to be careful how they deal with it and ensure that their food is safe not just when they get it but when they eat it.

In general terms, however, we on these Benches very much welcome and are supportive of the propositions that have come forward. We look forward to further consultation before we come to legislation.

5 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am very grateful to both the noble Lord and the noble Earl who have spoken for their broad welcome for the White Paper and its aims. I particularly welcome the points made by both speakers about the need to establish general public confidence in any arrangements flowing from the next stage of the consultation, the whole problem of openness and the points about which we had a lengthy discussion at Question Time--I do not believe that either of the speakers was present at that time--concerning the balance of risks and the need for what is colloquially called risk literacy on the part of the general public so that everyone is able to make responsible choices on the basis of balanced and good information rather than simply always relying on what they may be told or potentially instructed, which is certainly not the intention of these proposals.

I should like to address the specific points made by the noble Earl, particularly the question of accountability. If I elaborate slightly on the suggested arrangements in the White Paper I hope that that will reassure the noble Earl. Formally, the chair of the commission, who will be an independent appointee--it is clear from the White Paper that members of the commission will not be representative of any part of the food industry or any consumer group but will be appointed as individuals--will be accountable to health

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1087

Ministers who in turn will be accountable to Parliament for the agency as a whole. We hope that the chairman or chairwoman of the commission will have a high public profile and take a large public role in doing precisely the kind of education and confidence building to which both speakers have referred. He or she will be responsible for answering to the public for the agency's actions, but clearly parliamentary responsibility will be through the health Minister. The agency's chief executive will be the accounting officer rather like the chief executive of the National Health Service and therefore will be accountable to Parliament for its expenditure.

The public response to the report of Professor James showed strong support for an agency that reported to democratically elected Ministers. The Government agree that it should not sit outside the boundaries of government but should have some arm's length relationship to it. I hope that noble Lords will be assured that by the nature of the appointments to the commission the agency will have a high degree of operational autonomy in its day-to-day responsibilities. I believe that that will provide a powerful guarantee of the agency's independence so that it will not become susceptible to a particularly strong lobby from one particular group of consumers or part of the industry.

The noble Earl was concerned about whether the structures as they develop would have resulted in the same decision about the ban on beef on the bone. I do not wish to repeat precisely what I said to the House at Question Time this afternoon. However, the information and advice which was given through SEAC and the Chief Medical Officer to health Ministers would follow a similar route to that followed before Christmas, but with the agency being involved. I believe that it would be somewhat theoretical to try retrospectively to forecast what the agency position might have been. Nonetheless, the arguments about relative risk and safety, or even the small degree of potential danger to the consumer which we believe results from beef on the bone, together with the other political arguments that I have advanced would have led to roughly the same decision being made, even though it might have been reached by a slightly different route.

The noble Earl asked about the role of environmental health officers under the new arrangements. They will continue to be the front line troops of enforcement, but we believe that the agency will have a very important role in enabling their work to be co-ordinated and perhaps systematised throughout the whole country. As to communications, we see the agency having an active role. There will be a communications unit within the agency with responsibility for the types of public education to which both speakers have referred. They quite rightly saw that as a major responsibility for the new agency.

The noble Earl was concerned that perhaps some of the openness about this information might be of concern particularly to retailers and other members of the food industry who might see some of that information as prejudicial to their commercial position. Although they may already be on the tapes which I have not seen, we do not yet have the precise responses of individual

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1088

members of the industry to the White Paper. However, it is worth reflecting that most of the major retailers and many of those involved in industry were very enthusiastic in their response to the James Report on which so much of the White Paper is based. I hope and expect that we will see very much the same response today.

The costs are an issue. The Government believe that that is a matter on which there should be more precise consultation both during the consultation on the White Paper and in the period between the draft Bill and legislation. As I said when repeating the Statement, there will be a need for the closest possible consultation with all of the stakeholders involved.

Perhaps I may preview possible questions from noble Lords. It has been suggested in some of the media discussion prior to this White Paper that there may be an unfair burden placed on the industry if it is asked to contribute to some of the costs of regulation. It is worth looking at some of the other regulatory bodies such as Ofwat, Oftel or Ofgas. They have contributions from the industries involved to the regulatory process. Whether or not that is best established under the licensing scheme, which is one of the ideas suggested in the White Paper, is a matter that the Government hope will be very closely considered during the consultation period.

The noble Earl suggested that this might become a tax on food because costs would almost certainly be passed on. One should think of some of the reductions in cost over the past few years. As an example, one thinks of British Telecom where presumably the regulatory costs have not proved to be an intolerable burden. On a more modest scale, if one considers the costs of the licensing scheme under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, one understands that the income from fees for licensing covers 70 per cent. of the costs of that authority. I do not believe that this is a novel idea or one designed particularly to prejudice the food industry.

All of these matters are legitimate ones for further consultation. They are certainly ones on which the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture hope to work very closely with colleagues in the other departments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for drawing attention to the proposed arrangements in the White Paper for the diversity of interests reflected in those countries. Some of this may need to be looked at again after any possible devolution legislation is passed. For the moment, I hope that both he and other noble Lords feel that the different responsibilities are adequately taken care of.

As I said at the beginning, I am grateful to both the noble Lord and the noble Earl for their general welcome for the White Paper. We believe that it represents a major step forward both in the maintenance of food safety and the greater growth in food standards throughout the country. We very much welcome the general response that has been given to it so far.

14 Jan 1998 : Column 1089

5.10 p.m.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that any steps that improve food safety standards are to be very much welcomed? Does she also agree that in the past there have been far too many sensational and often unfounded stories about the dangers, and sometimes the advantages, of certain types of food? Does she accept that so often this happens because food safety is a fertile subject for certain individuals who appear to be more interested in self-publicity than the dangers of unnecessarily frightening the public? With regard to the agency and the commission, does the Minister accept that it is vital that there are people on the commission and involved with the agency who are skilled communicators and are in a position quickly--the imperative word is "quickly"--to refute some of the sillier stories about food which appear far too often?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page