Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hayman: On the issue of whether we formulate the legislation in terms of a specific time limit or in terms of "as soon as possible", we are dealing with an issue of relative risk here. The noble Baroness rightly highlights the risk. The normal best practice--and it is normally followed--that accounts and an annual report are published before the House rise for the Summer Recess, although not phrased in those terms, could be circumvented because it is not a legislative requirement.

I suggested that we should also be aware of the risk that, if an arbitrary time limit were included, one may end up publishing an annual report which does not contain all the financial information; and just for the sake of two or three days, or a week.

It is therefore an issue of risk. The noble Baroness asks me to give an assurance that this particular annual report is published as soon as possible. I have to give that assurance on behalf of my noble friend because by the time the financial year starts the Secretary of State for Health will have overall accountability for the agency. Perhaps I may reassure her that the accounts will be given equally as soon as possible at the end of the financial year, so these very technical accounts dealing with the different streams of income that come from the devolved legislatures will be working to the same time frame as the annual report with its financial information. I should just make clear that the Meat Hygiene Service is not funded by a levy. It is funded by charges to cover the costs of inspection. That is an important distinction to make in this particular area, especially since the issue of levy and this specific agency has been of some concern and the subject of major change during the discussion on this Bill.

Baroness Byford: I thank the Minister for her response. I apologise for the use of the word “levy". She is quite right that I should have used the expression “charge" because indeed it is a charge. If I were being mischievous, I would be slightly concerned that the

12 Oct 1999 : Column CWH47

agency did not feel that it could produce reports within three months. However, I accept what the Minister said and hope that it will work towards doing so.

It is important that people should be able to see what the agency is doing because their hopes have been built up so much as to what this agency will come up with. Certainly, the financing of the agency is of concern to quite a few producers who will fall within its remit. I thank the noble Baroness for that--though I still have reservations--and would like to be able to say that she accepted my amendment. However, since she has not done so, I shall certainly read the debate tomorrow in Hansard and perhaps come back to it at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 14 not moved.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Advisory committees]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 15:

Page 2, line 43, after (“Ireland") insert (“and an advisory committee for England")

The noble Baroness said: We come now to an important part of our discussions on the Bill. While we understand and agree that the food standards agency should have a role overarching the whole of the United Kingdom, we cannot accept that it can be its own adviser on all matters English. I suspect that my noble friend has already highlighted one or two aspects of devolution that may well be involved.

It will undoubtedly be true that several of the 12 members of the agency will be well versed in issues affecting England and may therefore be expected to carry that understanding into all agency deliberations. However, if the membership of the agency reflects the composition of the Government, it may well be that there are an equal number of members well versed on issues affecting Scotland. There are to be separate advisory committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but, as all your Lordships know, not for England. The Government have stated:

    “It is clear from the job description that the chief public face of the agency is ... the chair of the agency".--[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee B: 1/7/99; col. 94.]

They go on to say,

    “and to have operational directors in the territories with a link to the legislative bodies is crucial because the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament will deal with legislation"--[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee B: 1/7/99; col. 95.]

Later they state:

    “That is not to say, however, that different policies could not be imposed on specific areas ... [The advisory committee] will act as a channel of advice for the agency for the problems of various parts of the UK."--[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee B: 6/7/99: col. 114.]

The sum total of those statements seems to be an acknowledgement that different parts of the country do and will have different problems that will be met differently and that the chairman of the agency--the “chief public face" of the agency--cannot act in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It

12 Oct 1999 : Column CWH48

then seems illogical, especially in the face of the Government's own statements, not to have at least a separate advisory body for England.

The alternative would be to have no advisory bodies and instead to rely upon various statutory bodies, such as SEAC, Novel Foods and Processes, Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition, to keep the agency abreast of regional variations. However, the Minister rebuffed such an idea so I considered not floating it seriously again. Those are my thoughts in moving the amendment. I ask the Government to consider having an advisory body for England. Amendments Nos. 105 and 108 are consequential to these amendments. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Viscount Thurso: About a year ago, having sat for hours and hours through proceedings on the Scotland Bill, I thought that one of the defects of our approach to devolution was that we happily devolved Scotland, with which I was totally in favour, partly devolved Wales, with which I was partially in favour, and tried to do something for Ireland, but did nothing at all for England. It is absolutely right if you are a Home Ruler as I am that England should be treated equally with Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. In broad terms I have great sympathy with the noble Baroness's amendment and will be interested to hear how the Government respond.

Baroness Wilcox: Perhaps I may add a few words in support of the amendment. I had not intended so to do, but it suddenly dawned on me that as a free-born Englishwoman I do occasionally like to think that things in my area will be taken into consideration. It would be awfully nice if we thought this could come about and that we could have a committee for England. Will it really be possible? Will this be a first?

Baroness Hayman: The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, referred to the hours of debate on issues of devolution. That struck a warning note to me not to go too deeply in this particular area into the broad issues about devolution and the respective needs of the different areas of the United Kingdom. However, I have to say in my simplistic way that it was not an under-representation of English interests on UK bodies that was the motivation for the movement to have legislatures in Scotland and in Wales.

On the issue of food safety the devolved authorities recognise that it is an issue which does not easily respect internal borders. All are agreed that it makes sense for the agency to be a United Kingdom body which can provide a common authoritative source of advice on food safety matters across the United Kingdom, and so it is being established as a single UK body. The agency will, however, have to work not only with the UK Government but with the devolved authorities, including the Scottish Executive and Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly when it takes its powers. When the new All-Ireland Cross-Border Safety Promotion Board has been set up, it will work with that too.

12 Oct 1999 : Column CWH49

The Bill therefore makes provisions which take account of the particular needs of the devolved parts of the United Kingdom, such as providing a role in relation to appointments, which we discussed earlier, for directors for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for advisory committees to advise on matters affecting the devolved areas. We believe that these provisions are necessary and help glue the agency together as an effective UK body, but one which respects the differences.

It is not, I believe, an area in which we have to say that sauce for the goose is necessarily sauce for the UK gander. We are not convinced of the need for a permanent committee to serve the whole of England. England will fall under the authority of UK Ministers and will not need an advisory link to the UK agency in the same way as those provided to the devolved areas. As the noble Baroness has pointed out, we do not have a separate parliament for England which would justify a separate advisory structure for England. The committees in Scotland, in Wales and in Northern Ireland will form links with the legislatures there, and the link with this Parliament will be the agency itself.

This is not a situation that we have envisaged as being incapable of change. Provision is in any case already made for a committee to be established for England or parts of England if the need were to arise. If it does--and it may arise particularly in the context of devolution to the English regions or in the context of a special concern to England--the UK Ministers will be able to use these powers after consulting the agency.

At the moment we do not feel it is necessary to set up an English advisory committee. We believe that the needs will be well covered by the UK structure and by the relationship of the UK government with the agency itself. As I say, we are not being so closed-minded as to suggest that in the development of constitutional areas over time it would be impossible to envisage an advisory committee or committees for specific regions of England. There is sufficient provision in the Bill to make such arrangements were they considered to be necessary. On that basis I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page