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Baroness Byford: My Lords, at the same time, through the noble Baroness and noble Lords on the other side of the House, perhaps I may also extend my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for his contribution in the department in the past. I have worked for nearly a year with him and the department, and he has always dealt with affairs in this House in a very courteous and friendly way, which we have greatly appreciated. I hope that my thanks to him will also be recorded.
We on these Benches welcome the establishment of a food standards agency. We want to ensure that it will be a strong, independent agency and one which will give consumers authoritative guidance on what are often very complex issues. My understanding is that the agency is to be all embracing and responsible across the total food chain from farm to fork--my expression--or, as the Minister would say, "from plough to plate".
We note that the main objective as set out in Clause 1 is to protect public health from risks which arise in connection with the consumption of food and, in addition, to promote as well as to protect. Recent MORI polls state that the public expects more than just that: people are seeking safe food, and are looking for responsible labelling, including the composition of ingredients. I suspect that I am not the only one who is surprised that the Bill does not speak more directly about labelling, only about information.
However, we also note that there is no definition in the Bill of what exactly is meant by the word "food", which is surprising as the 1990 Food Safety Act stated that specifically. Perhaps, at a later stage, we can encourage the Government to consider including in Part I the preliminary meaning of "food", and of other basic expressions, and whether the position of fish in regard to this scheme might also be included on the face of the Bill.
Although the Bill goes into great detail about the constitution of the agency, the construction of the advisory committees and the scope of its duties, we note that it does not name anywhere the Secretary of State as the responsible Minister. The Explanatory Notes, which were printed on 23rd July, refer in subsection (2) on page 4 to the Secretary of State. In practice, for the purposes of the food standards agency, this is understood to be the Secretary of State for Health, but it is not defined as such on the face of the Bill. Why not put it on the face of the Bill? This is an important new agency. Perhaps it is an oversight, but I feel that that point needs clarification.
We are also concerned that the Bill sets up advisory committees for each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but leaves the question of one for England to the discretion of the Secretary of State. While we are on the subject of omissions, no mention is made of labelling, which I touched on earlier; nor, indeed--and more importantly--of imported food stuffs. This means that two items of great concern to the consumer will appear only through regulation and that the Government's intentions have to be discerned through parliamentary debate at various stages in the other House.
The Bill now before us contains a number of changes in comparison to the draft version. We warmly welcome the Government's change of heart in relation to the part funding of the FSA by a levy on food premises, which has been dropped completely. But in Clause 21(3), the Bill gives the agency express permission to charge for its services. There appears to be no corresponding duty to reimburse businesses for the cost of providing such things as records under Clauses 11(4) or 14(4).
There is a possibility of confusion arising from the agency exercising its right to issue "general guidance" on matters connected with the management of outbreaks, or suspected outbreaks, of food-borne disease. This is particularly likely in Scotland, where different agencies operate from in England and yet will apparently be subject to the same overarching authority. What will be the position, for example, with regard to beef on the bone, which has much exercised your Lordships over many months?
There are concerns that this Bill gives sweeping powers to the agency--"draconian" was an expression used in another place. The supplementary powers in Clause 21 mean that the agency is in effect a law unto itself. The Bill states that,
Although we want to see a strong, effective agency, too heavy a hand, or an over-bureaucratic system--or, indeed, gold plating--will mean that our food producers will suffer greater burdens than their overseas competitors, making them uncompetitive. However, I am sure that that is something of which the noble Baroness is well aware.
Only last week we debated the crisis facing the Meat Hygiene Service, the levels of charging and the effect that that is having on the smaller abattoir operators. We are all keen to see the growth of small businesses, especially rural ones, the possibility for our farmers to add value to their products and the extremely welcome farmers' markets with their niche market products. However, these must not be stifled by over-powering restrictions which prevent innovation. I accept that food standards must be applicable throughout the industry but, as with the MHS, one has seen that additional costs fall more heavily on small operators. That is something we should bear in mind when considering the agency at later stages of the Bill.
I am concerned that there is a lack of balance in the Bill. It gives the agency specific responsibilities for the food interests of consumers, but says nothing about the duty to consider the differing claims of short, medium and long-term interests or of large-scale and small-scale producers; or even of high risk versus low risk.
The agency's statement of general objectives is not required to be updated at regular intervals--a business plan by another name--nor does the Bill require the Secretary of State to publish any directions he may give to the agency under Clause 24.
In Clause 25, the Secretary of State is given the power to relax a prohibition which is inhibiting the agency in the discharge of its duties. Will this clause apply even when the enactment in question is not within the Secretary of State's remit and, if so, do the Government
This Bill is some 38 pages long. It has two full pages in Schedule 4 on accounts and audit. It has one page on animal feedingstuffs and veterinary products; over a page on the consequences of devolution; but less than one page on general functions in relation to food. As I mentioned earlier, it does not have a definition of "food"; any explicit reference to labelling; any explicit statement that the "Secretary of State" belongs to the Department of Health; nor does it draw any distinction between the limits of food safety, nutrition or a balanced diet.
We should ensure that the Bill covers all those matters to allow the agency to operate with openness and transparency, as the noble Baroness made clear earlier. It should also have a duty to set standards based on best scientific advice. However, we are a little concerned about the powers given to the agency, for example in Schedule 2, which will change the Medicines Act so that the agency can impose on Ministers its "place person" on, say, the veterinary products committee.
The regulations are all about the running of the food standards agency--I quite understand that--not about how its actions will directly affect the British public. The Bill adds to existing legislation but does not give powers to the agency to "sift through" and simplify or get rid of any existing legislation. We are concerned about that.
This is a Bill which is in some ways light on detail but strong on powers, relying on regulations instead of defining more exactly its direction on the face of the Bill. It is surprising to me that so much has been left out, particularly with regard to labelling which is crucial when buying food and for restoring public confidence. The Minister made that point earlier.
Last week in another place this Bill was guillotined with the result that many amendments were at best considered hurriedly and some not at all. We shall have to look carefully at all of it. The British public are expecting much from this agency. It is important that the right relationships are established between local and national government, and that, from the farmer to the customer, rules ensure an open system of monitoring and enforcement.
Last week, on 21st July, in his speech to the European Parliament the President-designate of the European Commission, Mr. Prodi, stated that the European public had lost confidence in both national and European food and drug regulators and that an initiative should be taken towards establishing an independent European food and drugs agency. If such a body is to be established, what UK powers might be handed over? Who would negotiate for us within Europe? The Minister suggested that it would be the agency. How would that sit alongside the responsibilities of MAFF?
With those few comments, I warmly thank the Minister for bringing this Bill before us today. We look forward to working with her and debating this Bill at greater length in the autumn.
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