Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Before my noble friend responds to what might be called the lead amendment, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his explanation. It is very difficult to see a way out of a dilemma in which the agency may decide the request is not practicable. I suppose that in parliamentary language this question can only be answered with undue cost, or words to that effect; that is the way out of answering a question which is too difficult or complicated to find the answer. However, I am still a little concerned as to who makes the judgment. If I heard the Minister correctly, the agency will make the judgment. Whatever else this has done, if that is on the record, it makes it perfectly clear who is in the driving seat as far as Clause 6(3)is concerned and it may well prevent any of the problems I was envisaging.

Baroness Byford: I thank the Minister for his response to my amendment. I gather from his response that although the agency may well give advice the local authority does not necessarily have to take it on board. In some ways, that is unsatisfactory because the advice it was giving would be something you would expect the local authority to take on board. I assume that that judgment will be the agency's responsibility and then the local authority will decide whether or not to take it on.

Before I sit down and consider it again, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord whether the local authorities are being charged for this advice or is the funding of the advice being borne by the agency itself? I am not quite sure of the relevant responsibility.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: As far as I am aware, it will not charge for that advice but, if I am wrong, I will write to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Byford: I am grateful to the Minister for that, because it has implications for local authorities. It could be that the agency comes through with a very good scheme and is giving advice which it believes the local authority should adopt. However, for other reasons, that local authority might well be unable to fulfil the advice being given. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on that. I thank him for his response and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Provision of advice, information and assistance to other persons]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 22:

Page 3, line 28, after (“section") insert (“or member")

The noble Baroness said: This amendment looks again at semantics and the Government's intentions. Providing advice to the general public has the connotation to many people of advice through the television, newspaper advertisements or hoardings. Providing advice to any section of the public brings to

12 Oct 1999 : Column CWH58

mind special interest groups; for instance, mothers of babes in arms, the over-60s and many other examples I could give. It should be possible for advice to be given to individuals separately as well where it is not available for general consumption. I imagine that an individual inquiring about something which is already in the public domain will simply be told by the agency where to find the information. However, it should be possible for the agency to provide explicit advice or information to an individual with an uncommon or rare problem, to which, from my reading of the Bill as it stands, that person is not entitled. I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones : I wish to speak to Amendment No. 27 to Clause 8. This is a purely probing amendment to discover the Government's intentions as far as concerns the research referred to in the clause. It is our view, and that of many consumer groups, that research should be undertaken to ascertain consumer attitudes to ensure that the agency's policies and advice take those consumer attitudes into account.

Recently we have seen how the public perception of risk can be very different from that of sciences, for example, in the case of genetically modified foods. This is due to a number of issues, but principally it is the different perceptions of risks compared with the benefits that are expected to accrue from, for example, a new technology.

Therefore, decisions have to be based on broader issues other than pure science, and this should include both ethical and environmental considerations. One only has to think of labelling to see that is true. It is important to know what the consumers' attitude towards labelling is, what kind of labelling reassures them and what kind does not. It is not a scientific fact; it is a matter of consumer opinion that needs to be ascertained.

Consumers need to be involved early enough in the agency's decision making so that their views and concerns can be taken into account. I look forward to the Minister's reply and hope that he or she will be able to elucidate on the matter.

Lord Desai: I do not know what noble Lords are going to say about these two amendments, but a food standards agency should provide facilities so that members of the public can approach health bodies either individually or together. At the beginning, that would be one of the main tasks the agency would have to perform because people who ask about certain kinds of food and so on, are very few.

Secondly, following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, when we talk about risk, people are no longer satisfied with what scientists say, partly because scientists defer among each other, and partly because people assess risk very differently from scientific evidence. My noble friend Lord Rea said a while ago that if you look at the harm done by bad diet, many more people are particular about that than about biological matters. Try and tell that to people in the middle of an E.coli crisis.

We have to find out why they think about food differently from the way they think about other risks. It is very important. That is how I read the

12 Oct 1999 : Column CWH59

amendment. It may involve anthropology rather than microbiology, but we have to find out why people's attitudes to risk in food are different from their attitude to any other kind of calculable risk.

The Countess of Mar: The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has made a very important point. The public have a perception--and I note it particularly with cheese because it is my interest--that unpasteurised cheese is extremely dangerous and that unpasteurised milk is extremely dangerous, but if they were told that food poisoning incidents--incidents rather than outbreaks--from cheese and from unpasteurised milk in the past 10 years have been at 0.3 per cent. of food poisoning records, they might have a different perception. This is the difference between their perception of food poisoning which is dramatised by press reports and, dare I say it, ministerial action which frightens everybody to death, and the actuality--this is one of the important aspects--of having a food standards agency. They will have all these figures at their fingertips. It is also important that we have proper records.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I do not disagree with any of the principal points made about the importance of the agency having a good, effective inter-relationship with consumers, and with the concerned consumers. Nor do I disagree with the comments about the need for information to be available and the importance of effective research.

Perhaps I may start by referring to the probing amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who was absolutely right to raise the question as to whether or not the Bill gives the agency a function to provide information or advice to individuals as well as to the general public. It is important that individuals should have access to the information and advice which the agency will be in a position to give. Indeed, it is my expectation, and I believe it is important, that the agency will quickly develop into the sort of body on which individuals can and should rely to provide information on food safety, the definition of a healthy diet, food claims and so on.

I can reassure the noble Baroness that the Bill does this. The Bill uses the legal convention that the plural, in this case the collective noun, can also mean the singular. I hope that allays her concerns on that point.

Let me then turn to the issue of research and the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. I reiterate that it is important to remember that the agency, if it is to command the confidence of the public that we desire and if it is to help in the process of restoring consumer confidence in the nation's food, will have a major task in relation to the advice, help, information and research that it can undertake in this area.

In response to my noble friend, Lord Desai, I can say that the agency will be running a helpline for consumers and individuals who seek advice. In

12 Oct 1999 : Column CWH60

accordance with service first principles, it will do everything in its power to respond to correspondence from individuals asking for advice on specific points.

In relation to the issue of research, I do not believe the amendment is necessary. The consumer research function is already covered by subsection (1). Adding this phrase to subsection (2) could have the perverse effect of narrowing the agency's scope for action rather than broadening it. In a sense, I am repeating the response which the noble Lord feared that, if you single out one particular aspect or provision, it might cast doubt on the generality of the clause as a whole.

Let me reassure Members of the Committee that we expect the agency to carry out or commission consumer research in order, for example, to test the effectiveness of the agency and its communication policies. We also expect the agency to carry out or commission surveys of consumer attitudes to inform its decision making, which is the very point made by a number of noble Lords in this debate. That needs careful planning to ensure that this is robust research and that the surveys undertaken are effective. We expect this to be a high priority with the agency when it is up and running.

Let me conclude by repeating that there is no question but that subsection (1) of Clause 6 gives the agency the function of obtaining, compiling and keeping under review information about,

    “matters connected with food safety or other interests of consumers in relation to food".

It is abundantly clear and, on that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page