Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Luke moved Amendment No. 62:

Page 10, line 33, at end insert (“but ensuring that the guidance is received by the relevant authorities before it is released to the general public or the media")

The noble Lord said: Many of us will be fairly regular listeners to the early morning news programmes. Not only do they delight one in revealing what is going to be in someone's speech later in the day, but frequently they “scoop" an item not due for general release until later in the week. This is, I accept, the era of the leak, whether authorised or not.

However, there is a side to this which is alarming to many. How often do the media convey unwelcome news on the side effects of drugs and on the results of research? Never mind that the figures may point to a “2 per cent. increased risk" or a “one in ten million chance" of something happening. It is all news and must be rushed to an audience of millions with not a second's delay.

We on this side of the Committee, are anxious that, particularly in the case, say, of a food poisoning incident, the general public should not be in a position to act before those who must deal with them have had time to make adequate preparations, brief their staff, set up stringent follow up procedures and so on. We have only to consider recent reports of the pressure put on GPs by an early release of a meningitis diagnosis to understand how much delay was caused simply through a flood of incoming calls from anxious patients. I beg to move.

Baroness Byford: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 63 which requests that:

I notified the Minister that "section" was my error.

This is to cover the event of a crisis such as an outbreak of widespread food poisoning. The agency must certainly be free to act quickly. However, in much of its work it will be assessing evidence collected over time and devising methods of improving food safety. Many of the methods will employ relatively small measures on a par with, for example, date-stamping egg boxes. No big deal-- to use a modern parlance--but for those who have to buy the stamps, rearrange the packing process, add a step to the inspection process, train their staff and perhaps even negotiate an adjustment to a job description, some time is needed in which to do it.

There are those who would claim that a minimum notice period should be as long as three months. We feel that that is unrealistic. That is why the amendment suggests that four weeks would be generally accepted

13 Oct 1999 : Column CWH118

as enough-- more often than not--for changes that need to be put in hand and which will already have been anticipated in advance.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: This has been an interesting debate and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the question of general guidance which is covered by Clause 20. Turning first to the concern that guidance would reach the public or the media before the authorities that were going to be asked to consider it or to put it into effect, I take the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Luke, about issues in relation to, say, food poisoning. He also talked about the issue of meningitis and vaccination and the information which he said was not available to GPs before it reached the media.

Those are not the kinds of cases that would apply to Clause 20. Clause 20 is associated with the agency's power to issue general--I stress general--guidance on the management of outbreaks of food-borne illness. In other words, the agency might from time to time issue guidance material on the management of outbreaks much as we issue codes of practice under Section 40 of the Food Safety Act. The guidance that is covered in this clause, therefore, should not give rise to panic amongst the general public or enquiries from the media necessarily.

I agree with the principle that bodies like the agency should ensure that addressees receive guidance in time to deal with inquiries from the public or the media, or indeed other local bodies with an interest. I would certainly expect the agency to run its affairs efficiently and take all possible steps to ensure that people who need to have the information get it quickly as well as operating in a generally open and transparent manner. In relation to the clause I hope that what I have said reassures the noble Lord.

I turn to the publication of a notice period of not less than 20 working days. I reiterate the comments that my noble friend has made on a number of occasions this afternoon. We expect the agency to act in an open, transparent and consultative way. The amendment would require the agency to publish a written notice before it could do anything except issue guidance to local authorities and health authorities on the management outbreaks of food-borne illness. I am sure that is not what the noble Baroness intended. I assure her and other noble Lords that the agency will not be able to rush into things with undue haste. It will need, of course, to respond instantly in an emergency. Otherwise, it will generally be required to consult widely. It will always need to operate openly in relation to all those affected. Clause 22 ensures that. There is also a statutory duty to consult before making regulations under the Food Safety Act.

This amendment would be impractical to operate. in the spirit of the comments I have made, I would invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Luke: I am grateful to the Minister for his answer to Amendment No. 62. I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

13 Oct 1999 : Column CWH119

Clause 20 agreed to.

Clause 21 [Supplementary powers]:

[Amendment No. 63 not moved.]

Clause 21 agreed to.

Clause 22 [Statement of general objectives and practices]:

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 64:

Page 11, line 11, after (“shall") insert (“, following consultation with all interested parties including members of the public,")

The noble Lord said: This group of amendments, Amendments Nos 64 to 68, attempts to make a number of changes to Clause 22, relating to publication by the agency of its general objectives and the other objectives contained within Clause 22(2).

First, we believe that subsection (1) should place a duty on the agency to prepare and publish a statement of general objectives, only after consultation with interested parties. That should be a mandatory requirement under this clause.

Secondly, Amendment No. 65 extends the general objectives to ensure that not only its activities but also any administrative arrangements, such as the concordats between government departments and agencies, should be the subject of consultation.

Thirdly, in that self-same Clause 22(2)(a), the consultations should again be mandatory. The words “where appropriate" should be deleted and members of the public should have the right to be consulted on those concordats.

Fourthly, in Amendment No. 67, with regard the keeping of records in Clause 22(2)(c), the duty should not only extend to making sure that the records of the agency's decisions are kept and made available with a view to enabling members of the public to make informed judgments and so on, but also those decisions should be those of the committees of the agency and representatives of the agency. There are a number of differing intentions behind that group of amendments.

Finally, in Clause 22(7), there is again a belt and braces provision regarding consultation with members of the public. We believe that the agency should consult all interested parties, including members of the public, before the statement is finalised. It should also be ensured that the agency consults not just on its activities but on its administrative arrangements and those concordats. It is also important that the public should be consulted on those concordats as a right. I beg to move.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Byford: I rise to speak to my Amendment No. 69 which asks the agency to submit an annual report to Parliament, setting out in its first statement its current objectives and how it intends to attain them.

Setting up a large, monolithic-like food standards agency is a mammoth task. We are very much exercised about the hows and the wherefores and the workings of it. We should not forget, however, that we need to look forward and envisage the future.

13 Oct 1999 : Column CWH120

Were all produce to be labelled by country of origin and processing and packaging, with nutritional values measured, published and known down to the amount of the salt in a pre-dinner crisp, and were hygiene standards the envy of the world, the FSA would surely need, even then, to find new objectives.

Joking apart, most organisations require a view of their objectives on a regular basis, partly to ensure that they do not have too many to meet them adequately, and partly to ensure that they keep up with change. In the agency's case, the outcome of each regular review should be laid before Parliament and hence be open to informed scrutiny and discussion.

We feel that it is essential to match a statement of objectives with an assessment of the methods and resources which will be necessary to meet them. Hence it follows that any restatement should be accompanied by a matching section on how matters will be progressed. Indeed, in an earlier amendment we talked about a five-year review on pesticides and animal feeds, and I advised noble Lords that I would return to this issue later.

It is fair to remind your Lordships that schools, for example, are required to draw up an annual development plan which is scrutinised as part of the Ofsted inspection process. The Government have now added to that requirement that each LEA must also prepare an annual development plan which is also subject to an Ofsted examination, and this is behind the thinking and the reason why I speak to this amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page